When did I start gaming?

Cover of Dragon Magazine #56

Upper bound

A while ago, a post on Grognardia got me wondering when I started gaming. Like a lot of folks, I started with Basic D&D, specifically the blue box that had B2: Keep on the Borderlands. Judging by the Acaeum website, it was probably 7th edition. I got fairly well into the game and acquired the PHB and DMG, and got a subscription to Dragon magazine for the holidays, starting with issue 56. That puts an upper limit of 1982 on when I got into gaming, and more likely means I started in about 1981. That certainly sounds about right.

Gaming tools: The big dice bag

Photo of my big dice bag

My main dice bag and its contents

Like a lot of gamers, I have a lot of dice. I even have a set of spares that I keep at home. But I carry my main set with me in a large, purple leather bag.

I used to carry far fewer dice with me, but as I started GMing Blade & Crown more, I found that I needed multiple sets of things: my personal dice; glass beads; and ‘loaner dice’ that I could lend to players who didn’t happen to have a handful of D10s and a D12. In the dealers’ room at Convergence one year, I bought a nice big purple bag; it soon became my main dice bag.

It’s quite large: it’d probably hold a couple hundred dice, if that were all I wanted to keep in it. The drawstrings are nice and heavy, apparently cotton, with wooden aglet-things at the ends. The grommets seem quite strong.

Photo of my main dice bag, full

Capacious it is

The bag is made of suede leather, which makes it very tough. The finish, however, isn’t ideal; it picks up dust and crumbs very easily. Since I keep it in my daily-use messenger bag, it attracts a constant stream of schmutz. So were I to look again, I’d probably want a different material. Leather’s good, but not this kind of leather.

The strings, being quite thick, also don’t stay closed very well. The bags requires double-knotting to stay tied up. A slight annoyance, that’s all.

It’s a very trusty bag, overall, and I’m glad to have it. I suppose I should’ve kept the name of the dealer! But they’d probably be easy to find again at Convergence.

Again a delay between posts — apologies. Posts will probably be rare until after Con of the North.

No- and low-prep games

Image of a pocketwatchAh! No time to write!

Sometimes, life just gets the better of you: the regular GM can’t make it, or they haven’t had time to prepare, or half the players are sick, or you need something between campaigns, or you just don’t have the brainpower for a full-on game. When that happens, it can be good to have a stop-gap/single-session game to play. Because gamers seem to be getting busier, there are more and more games out there to fill these gaps. Here are some that my group has played:

  • Lost Days of Memories and Madness. This is a game of slightly twisted elves bartering over powerful memories at the end of the world. We haven’t yet played a full game of it, but we’ve had a lot of fun with it nonetheless. The setup phase, especially, has been a lot of fun; it’s mostly about worldbuilding and collaboratively declaring what the game is about. My friend John has been writing up and elaborating one of the games in his series of posts about the realm of Rust Gate. We’ve also had a lot of trouble remembering the name, so in our group, it’s become affectionately known as the “Elf Memory Game”.
  • Og: Unearthed Edition. This is a rather silly game in which you play as an early hominid. The wonderful idea of the game is that each character only knows a handful of words, and when you communicate with your fellow players, you’re only allowed to use those words. So “You go around the back of the mammoth while I make a distraction by those trees” becomes “You go! Me bang ugh!” and, naturally, the plan falls apart. In some ways, it’s a satire on the violence inherent in so many RPGs, but it’s also just plain goofy fun. While the game has a GM, prep can take as little as a sentence: “You’re hungry. There’s no food in your cave.”
  • Fiasco. Lots of folks already know and love this game, but just in case: It’s basically the RPG of Coen Brothers movies. Twisted people doing horrible things, often in hilarious ways. We’ve used the playsets “The Ice” and “Keepin’ On Keeping On the Borderlands”, and I could swear we’ve played one more, too. It’s very much a storygame, where you’re encouraged to think more about the story than identify with your character, and this makes it a particular kind of twisted fun.
  • Microscope. We’ve only played one session of this, but I hope it becomes semi-regular. It packs a lot of fun and gravitas into a single evening.
  • Blade & Crown Mass Combat. This was really a playtest, but it also functioned well as a stopgap game. We played out the siege of the Cult of the Two Suns by Morensian forces, and it was quite fun. It had a good mix of RPG elements and grand strategy, if I may say so myself.

There are a few that we haven’t gotten around to playing yet:

  • Shab al-Hiri Roach. This game sounds right up our alley, what with liking Fiasco and the Elf Memory game. We’ve even tried to start a session once, but the rules were slightly difficult to understand.
  • Old School Hack. Well, the group as a whole isn’t all that set on this, but I’d love to try it out sometime. It feels like the pure, distilled essence of what makes old school gaming fun, along with some nifty storygame-style mechanics.

Gaming tools: NPC cards

For Heirs to the Lost World, Chad Davidson created NPC cards: just the right size to fit in Magic: the Gathering card sleeves, and with just enough information to run NPCs in combat. It was obviously a brilliant idea, so I implemented something similar for Blade & Crown.

Image of arrayed NPC cardsAlthough you could use the NPC record (PDF) many ways, the method I intended is to print a dozen or so copies of the sheet on stiff paper or cardboard and then cut the sheets into cards. With this, I’ve made several dozen NPCs. I usually write the NPCs up in pen, allowing me to use pencil later on for temporary notes (combat damage, motives, even names). That way, I can erase the cards as needed and re-use them. That’s another reason to use thick paper: it resists erasing better. I printed the cards single-sided, so I can use the backs for additional notes — though, if an NPC is going to be long-term and require tracking notes, I eventually give them a fuller record elsewhere. Also, when I got them printed at Kinko’s, I asked the folks there to give me the chipboard backings they use to make the cuts; these backings make great covers for stacks of cards, allowing me to use rubber bands to hold the stack together. I keep them in one big stack, in alphabetical by character/creature type, making for easy searching when I need an NPC. I also keep cards tied to specific scenarios separated by the chipboard pieces, making it even easier to find cards for particular uses.

So far, the NPC cards have been a very successful experiment. Just a few days ago, I printed a bunch more, mostly because I need quite a few more NPC types for Con of the North. Future plans:

  • Make a PDF that really uses the whole page-space, allowing for less cutting and for more information per card.
  • Create a bunch of pre-filled in cards for B&C players to print and use.

For that last one, especially, let me know what kinds of NPCs you’d like cards for!

Apologies for not posting recently. Life has been hectic.

Microscope: Reflections

Illustration of concentric circles

Digging down

Last time, I related the content of our first Microscope game. Now, some reflections on how it went.

There were a few other things that didn’t go totally smoothly:

  1. We found that we needed some way of reminding us of the current Focus. A small whiteboard would’ve been great. I found myself looking for sketchboard apps for my tablet.
  2. The direction of play sometimes got confusing. Remembering when it’s the person to the right of the Lens or the person to left got a little tricky at times. It might’ve been good to have a marker for the current Lens, too.
  3. It sometimes seemed like there were a lot of subsystems. For such a short book, for a diceless game, it felt like the terminology, conflict resolution, direction changes, levels of interactions (are we allowed to collaborate at this level of the game, etc.) and other mechanics could almost have been overwhelming; there was a lot of “wait a moment while I look up that rule”. But we managed quite well, and I’m sure that by our second time playing, we’ll have a much better sense of how to do it.
  4. It was hard to get out of the collaboration mode at times. We’re all used to indie games where everyone works together, continuously and synchronously, to make for a more amazing game; this is a hard habit to break. A couple times, we suggested ideas to each other because we couldn’t stop (and it was a little unclear if it was allowed at that level of the game).
  5. There was a fair amount of downtime, as players decided what to do next (what kind of history to create, what character to take in a Scene, etc.). And because of the way the history creation works, it can be hard to be thinking of your next action while the current player is thinking of theirs.
  6. It was hard at times to decide if something was an Event or a Period.

There were a lot of things that went really well, though:

  1. The game’s section on how to teach it to others is quite well done: it hits the important points with a lot of clarity but without bogging down in details.
  2. As I mentioned in the play report, we slipped into the Scenes really well, and had fun even just declaring characters.
  3. Having other people’s ideas to play off of during a worldbuilding session can be very rewarding, and a lot of the structure of Microscope — especially, I think, the asynchronous collaboration — really brings this out well.
  4. A lot of the specific situations, characters and dialogue we created were just very entertaining: the uplifted laid-back night shift cat, the fiery religious AI, the wizened old AI, a variety of working class characters and issues, the idea of AIs appreciating cats on keyboards as massage… The nifty ideas kept flowing.
  5. The asynchronous collaboration went really well. The other players kept coming up with ideas that were surprising, sometimes a little wacky and very original, and I’m sure the whole was richer for it.
  6. The Focus system does an interesting job of ensuring that we see different aspects of each historical era and event. It’s much like reading histories written by different people — regardless of the topic, different scholars will point up different nuances and details.
  7. The game is pretty much pure distilled worldbuilding fun.

A more general observation: when we were choosing characters for the AI schism Scene, just by announcing our characters, it was almost obvious what the answer was going to be. I can see that this could be a problem, but it was also a benefit, in that we saw how much influence these characters were going to have.

It’s very easy to imagine using Microscope to do collaborative worldbuilding for a campaign or other purpose. It’s equally easy to imagine using other RPGs to play out Scenes. The trick would be that the canon has already been written — the history requires that Scenes play out in certain ways. But this doesn’t seem like an impossible hurdle.

Overall, Microscope is really quite a wonderful game, and I hope to play it again soon. The trick will be whether we revisit our future history, or dive into some other, equally-interesting worldbuilding…

Microscope: First session

Illustration of concentric circles

Going deeper

As mentioned in the comments of last post, John, the GM for our main campaign, was sick last week, and so the rest of us played Microscope. We started by talking a bit about how the game works — for old hands at RPGs, it has quite a few concepts that are out of the norm — and then I used the game’s explicit instructions on how to teach the game. Seemed a waste not to try them, right?

The one-sentence history we ended up with was, I think, “The Rise of the AIs”. For our Palette, here’s what we got:


  • FTL via wormholes
  • Implications for religion
  • Uplifted animals


  • Civil war between AIs and humans
  • Moustache-twirling AIs

I was already pleasantly surprised here; I had not been expecting uplifted animals to be part of this story. And I was glad that we were all on the same page about “evil AIs” — we’d all seen the AIs as the bad guys far too often.

Our start and end points:

  1. Sentient computers arise on Earth ⬤
  2. The sentient computers recreate human life ◯

So, an ultimately uplifting story. Interesting implications, if the creation of AIs is dark and the AIs themselves aren’t the bad guys.

The Rise of the AIs

  1. Sentient computers arise on Earth ⬤
  2. The first animals are uplifted ⬤
    1. Architectural AIs hit labor disputes with humans, resolve situation by uplifting gorillas to replace humans as labor ⬤
  3. Most humans drop opposition when animals pay large tax > Humans stop working > More animals are uplifted > (and back to the beginning of the cycle) ◯
  4. Major religions denounce AIs for uplifting animals ⬤
    1. Animals denounce major religions for denouncing their existence ◯
      1. Why was this the beginning of a schism among the AIs? | The AIs debate what to do about human cruelty to animals and AIs | The AIs disagreed about self-preservation vs. observation — some demanded release of the Martyr ⬤
    2. Animals that had been practicing human religions create their own religions when they are barred from human services. ⬤
  5. AIs and humans part amicably ⬤
    1. Humans stop communicating with AI. Uplifted cats are intermediaries. ◯ (and the circle has cat ears)
      1. Why did they choose cats? | Dolphin hackers destroy records of humans for AI in space station | Only the cats were calm ⬤
    2. Anti-human hacking memory virus spreads & AI start to lose ability to perceive humans ⬤
      1. How did the virus lead to an amicable separation? | The AIs decide to purify themselves by going on a wormhole pilgrimage | Everyone’s happy with the AIs’ decision to leave Earth ◯
    3. Gibbons & octopi on strike, internet shuts down ◯
  6. AIs colonize other planets & systems ◯
    1. The AIs and the animals have an interfaith council and reconcile, and realize they share a spiritual goal of going to the stars. ◯
    2. The cat-AI alliance is strengthened when they decide to co-colonize Mars ◯
    3. The sentient computers recreate human life ◯

As with any “let me tell you about my RPG session”, that doesn’t sum up the invention and niftiness that we experienced in the moment (that’s not how RPG’s work, after all). Especially because this kind of staid presentation doesn’t capture the iterative, generative wonder that the session itself contained. That makes it tempting to present the chronology in the order that we created it — but a) that would take too much space, and b) I don’t remember the order anyway. (Note for future games: write turn numbers on the cards.)

The Scenes were very memorable, though. I was surprised how easily we fell into it, and how easily we adapted to the game’s dicta, especially the “play the scene to get an answer to the question, and no further” rule.

The “Why did they choose cats?” scene was the first one we played. In it, a human general increasingly distrusted the AIs on an important space station; an overseer AI became worried at the sudden appearance of alien intruders (who were actually humans, but it didn’t realize that; its human-recognition subroutines were being messed with); and an uplifted night-watch/overnight maintenance cat was the only one who could handle it all. The increasing human/AI tension, counterpointed by the laid-back cat attitude, was great. The scene was a lot of fun, and we had a few Pushes — good sign that we were getting into the spirit of the game.

The second Scene was the dispute among the AIs about how to handle the growing human threat. Set inside a wormhole, there was a wizened old logistics AI, an observer AI and a radical religious AI, all arguing different sides of the issue. That logistics AI ended up getting traded around through different Scenes, and all three players — we liked the character so much that we all wanted to play it, at different points in its life. The fiery zealot AI became an imprisoned martyr around which a movement, and a schism, grew.

The last Scene, the one in which the AIs decided to go on a pilgrimage of purification, had less conflict and was resolved relatively quickly, but still fun. (And with that scene, everyone had gotten to play the wizened old AI, I think.)

We had two Legacies, but to be honest, we didn’t do much with them; they allowed for that little extra bit of development, but because the history created cannot be a played Scene, it feels less dramatic and invested than other ways of making history in the game. Perhaps they’d have been more dramatic if we had gotten far enough for us to come back and revisit our Legacies.

Next time, a few reflections on how Microscope worked in that session.

Microscope: First thoughts

Illustration of concentric circles

Zooming in

For about as long as I’ve known of its existence, the game Microscope has fascinated me. I love the worldbuilding that it implies, and the collaborative aspect has always been intriguing. So a few weeks ago, I admitted to myself that I should just get a copy and did.

The rules are quite short; the book is only about 80 pages long, and a good chunk of that is theory, reference and a section on how to teach the game. And the rules also seem fairly straightforward on a first read-through, but as I discovered in this week’s game, the game-play can actually be rather intricate.

In structure, it’s a game about setting up broad swathes of fictional history and drilling down into specific eras and events to see how they turned out, and why. It’s much like doing worldbuilding alone, with the addition that other people’s ideas will often make it richer, in surprising ways.

As the game reiterates fairly often, when it’s your turn to create history, you have nearly absolute narrative control. If you want to destroy something that someone else has created, you can; in fact, there’s a section of the rules called “Nuking Atlantis” that describes how to do it. There are two wrinkles: one, you can’t change the canon already established; and two, players are free to move the Focus around in the history. If someone else has created something that bugs you, you can describe how it is wiped off the map, and what you describe has then happened — but the other player can then go to other eras where it still existed, or where it was recreated. The game is really a marvelous toolkit for worldbuilding.

Also, having near-absolute narrative control means that collaboration in the moment is mostly forbidden. You really shouldn’t give others ideas on what to have happen, and they shouldn’t ask for advice. It goes against a lot of the gaming I’ve done over the past few years, with everyone working together in near-simultaneous mode to make everything more fun and interesting. But there is collaboration, of course; it just happens on a larger scale, with players exploring and expanding aspects of other people’s ideas. I like how this works, because you end up seeing aspects of history that others wouldn’t have thought to explore, and they end up expanding aspects of things you’ve created in equally unexpected ways.

Next time, I’ll post an actual play report from our first session.

Con of the North: Your chance to play Blade & Crown!

This year’s Con of the North is February 15-17 — just a few weeks away! At the Con, I’ll be running two Blade & Crown events:

Karna’s Cache

Honor among thieves? Well, we all stick together, and old man Karna kept his word when he said he’d tell us where the missing treasure was before he died. Now to deal with the ghosts and nobles standing between us and the treasure…


Hayao Miyazaki’s Valley of the Sands

When the Great Insects came, the Queen in the Valley of Sands asked us to root out the cause. Now, we venture beyond the lands of the Periphery, into the Sea of Corruption itself, to save our home.


Map of a section of Aropash

Part of the town where Karna’s Cache takes place

If you’ve been wanting to try Blade & Crown, this is your chance! Both games should be great. I’ve already run something of a prequel to Karna’s Cache for my weekly group, and they had a lot of fun with it. (Though there was that rather unfortunate incident involving a crossbow and a messenger.)

Both are in the House of Indie Games, where many wonderful games will be on offer. Come hang out and play some nifty games with us!

Streamlining B&C combat?

Illustration of combat from Bayeux Tapestry

Combat can be messy.

Something I’ve thought about occasionally, and which I didn’t spell out all that much in the book, is how to streamline B&C combat. If you want it all to go smoother, faster or more abstractly, what sub-systems should you take out first?

  1. Primary Opponents. These are probably the easiest to do without. Primary Opponents allow for things like keeping track of outnumbering and distracting people. And like all these sub-systems, they add that little extra bit of tactical decision-making that can make RPG combat so engaging. But the game doesn’t absolutely require this system to function, and can in fact work very smoothly without it. This is probably the first sub-system to do without if you want faster B&C combat.
  2. Map-based movement. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, it is entirely possible to rely on the imaginations of everyone present to track movement. Or, if you like, you can keep it fairly abstract; put out a D10 or two to show distances between opponents, and you almost don’t need a map. If the combatants are all clear in everyone’s heads, a map isn’t strictly necessary.
  3. Stances. This is the sub-system where I start to say “oh, but that would be losing all the flavor!” From a tactical standpoint, stances are one of the most interesting aspects of B&C combat. Having to decide which stance to take, based on what you think your opponent is going to do, is very immersive and makes for important decisions (and decisions are at the core of what makes RPGs great). But it’s possible to do without them, and just allow evocative and original descriptions to take their place. If your group wants B&C combat that’s as streamlined as it can be, stances may need to be sacrificed.

All else is probably a necessity, though of course you won’t bring (for example) grappling rules into every combat unless they’re relevant. And really, keeping the three elements above can make for a wonderfully detailed, tension-filled melee environment — but that isn’t always what you want in a given session.

RPG History: Playing at the World, Part I

As mentioned before, I’ve been reading Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World. It’s been wonderful so far, with a few frustrations, but mostly just shedding light where I’d only heard rumors before.

The book is quite big, and although I’m not the fastest reader, I’ve been working through it quite quickly. Peterson uses a semi-academic prose style that avoids dryness while also mostly staying objective. Plus, of course, the subject matter is fascinating, and my curiosity is a strong motivator.

History is a complex subject, and the evolution of D&D is not a simple matter to cover, so the organization of the book is necessarily complex. The book has only five chapters: “A Prelude to Adventure” (primarily an introduction to wargames and an overview of the development of D&D), “Setting: The Medieval Fantasy Genre”, “System: The Rules of the Game”, “Character: Roles and Immersion” and “The Dawn of Role-Playing”, plus introduction, epilogue, bibliography and notes. It is difficult to fully analyze any one thread in the tapestry that is the invention of RPGs without also pulling at other threads, so the book is scattered with “more on this in the next section”-type comments. This can be frustrating at times, but I can’t think of a better way to organize a prose book. (A wiki might conceivably work better.)

I have two other frustrations so far. (I’ve only gotten up to page 260 or so at this point.) One, Peterson aspires to academic prose, but frequently allows subjective editorializing and colloquial writing to mar the narrative. Here are a few examples:

These pacifist dalliances proved less successful, however, than games in the bellicose mold of Tactics(p. 57)

“Pacifist” could arguably not be biased, but “dalliance” surely is. Or, if it’s self-deprecation (making light of geeky pastimes), then it feels like nerd self-loathing.

Ineffectual copyright protection… further curtailed profits from sales. (p. 230)

There are a lot of modern copyfighters who would argue with the notion that profitability requires strong copyright law. This isn’t a central point of Peterson’s book, of course; but why assert such a thing in the first place? Editorializing like this distracts from the history woven through the book.

…throughout his all-too-short career Lovecraft never found a superior vehicle for his work. (p. 247)

Again, why the editorializing? Why say “all-too-short” instead of just “short”?

Harold Shea… entered these stories by means of the unfortunately-named ‘syllogismobile… (p. 258)

Use of the term “unfortunately” feels very out of place in academic writing.

Peterson isn’t, I think, trying for purely objective, disinterested, academic prose. He’s clearly coming from the position of someone who loves and appreciates RPG history, and that is a big part of the book’s appeal: it is clearly a work of love. But I wish he could keep just that bit further towards objectivity.

The second problem I’ve noticed is insufficient sourcing. Peterson frequently states things as fact without giving a citation or proof for the statement:

Combatants in medieval wargames are typically armored melee units, mounted or on foot, who favored swords and shields and the support of distant bowmen. (p. 92)

(Emphasis mine.) I mean, yes, they probably typically are armed that way, but it still feels like something that would get a “citation needed” tag in Wikipedia.

…lycanthropes… of whom Beorn the were-bear of The Hobbit was a likely prototype… (p. 131)

Likely? Perhaps, but I’d need to see documentation from Gygax and Perren to believe it. As it is, Peterson doesn’t give any support to his assertion.

Tony Bath took up the cause of campaigning in wargames with his Hyborian campaign, rightfully seen as the progenitor of modern miniature wargame campaigns. (p. 148)

The use of “rightfully”, here, feels like both an unsupported assertion and a bit of editorializing. Again, more historical support would be good.

It was in this lively column that science fiction acquired one of its defining characteristics… a fandom. (p. 244)

It’s extremely hard to pinpoint any one location as the birthplace of fandom; if Peterson has more proof that Amazing Stories truly was where SF fandom began, I’d love to see it! Perhaps he’s referring to a study that proved this? If so, it remains uncited.

I’m reading the book in electronic form, and it’s certainly possible that the hard copy has more notes. In the electronic edition, there are endnotes — they don’t provide enough historical support to fill in the gaps, however, and they make me think that the paper edition doesn’t have sufficient support, either.

Mostly, these objections are a wish to strengthen an already great book. It feels like Peterson has textual or oral history that supports (for example) the idea that Gygax and Perren derived their ideas of lycanthropes from Tolkien, but because nothing is provided in the book, it feels like a gap in the otherwise wonderful narrative. It’s more a case of wanting more of his scholarship than of wanting less.

And I’ve been wanting more because the book truly is engaging and enlightening. At numerous points, I’ve found myself saying “Yes!” or “I’ve always wondered about that…” For example, over the years, I’ve heard occasional murmurs about Dave Wesley (sp? Peterson spells it differently in his blog) and the Braunstein games that led up to D&D, but having read the descriptions in Playing at the World, I feel like I really know how they worked and what they were about.

As another example, the book also gives a good sense of what Arneson contributed to D&D, and what Gygax did, relating a lot of facts without getting too far into this very partisan issue. And there are many other wonderments. The discussion of the early history of GenCon is fascinating. Peterson adeptly paints the landscape of early SF&F magazines, and which authors produced what. And it seems that most times I’ve seen a tantalizing name mentioned, within a few paragraphs Peterson had solved several important mysteries.

Also, and this is less of a mystery than just something I really appreciate, he uses a trope-based definition of fantasy: “the presence of one or more of the following elements”, including magic, wizards, mythological creatures, etc. I’ve long felt that fantasy and SF are defined not by a single attitude, but by certain tropes that are frequent (if not universal); SF&F are defined more by their tag clouds than by their philosophies. It’s good to see him using this type of definition.

So overall, Playing at the World has been a great, enlightening read so far. I’ll continue to review it as I finish more.