Cold Shadows - is it any good?


Cold Shadows is a Cold War espionage RPG published by Gallant Knight Games after a successful Kickstarter. It was delivered late, due to the unfortunate and unexpected death of the publisher Stewart Wieck in the period after the Kickstarter concluded. The core book is great, although it does suffer from a few issues related to the game system editing (which were addressed with an errata). It has two sourcebooks; Cities in Shadow (which details locations for your game to visit) and the Black Book (details agencies and characters). It was like catnip to me as I'm a sucker for the genre, and I backed it the moment I heard about it.

At the moment, I'm still mulling over what to run for my final slot for this year's Furnace, as at least two other people have already offered Alien in other slots and that was my original choice. I've recently been listening to a BBC World Service podcast about the mysterious death of the Isdal woman in the middle of the Cold War, and it's put my mind to running Cold Shadows in a riff on the story that's unfolding.

I dug out my rules, and started to look for resources or after-action reviews on the internet and, to my surprise, I found virtually nothing. The publisher's website has very little material as well. Is this a sign of a bad game? Is this the sign of a game that's too hard or difficult to run?

I guess there's only one way to find out...

Notes on my Workflow for Lyonesse

From the press release

I was fortunate enough to be asked to contribute to the Lyonesse RPG being issued by the Design Mechanism. I was a latecomer to the trilogy but really enjoyed it when I first read it so I was delighted by the opportunity. 

Once I knew I was working on the RPG, I started by re-reading the trilogy. I then listened to the audiobook version (which I wholeheartedly recommend) whilst driving to work. Then I stripped the eBook to a text file and loaded it into a (free) sophisticated web-based text analysis tool called CATMA. This allows you to highlight blocks of text and assign them to a keyword. You can then run an analysis on that keyword set and export the outcome.

CATMA front screen showing the core books

I used two sets of keywords; the character names and the countries for the sections that I was writing. At the end of reviewing the text (which was in effect a third time of reading), I dumped each book's output for each character to an Excel file which I numbered sequentially for the book being analysed. So Dahaut-1 was the references to the country of Dahaut in Suldrun's Garden and Tatsel-2 was the reference to the character Tatsel in The Green Pearl.

Example of the tagging process in CATMA

Next, I set up some templates in Google Docs that matched the frameworks passed on for the Gazeteer sections. I used Google Docs because I wanted to be able to work on this anywhere, and I wanted to be able to use my Chromebook (as my MacBook was serving as the main family computer due to the iMac GPU dying). I took each Excel file from CATMA, and cut and pasted it into the relevant sections. Once I did that, I planned the outline for each part.

Whilst writing, I had all three books open in a text editor to allow me to check and find references quickly. On the Mac, this was in a different 'Space' so I could just swipe between them. I also printed and comb-bound the CATMA output, the map of the Elder Isles prepared for the game, and things like the family trees scanned from past editions. I found the map and the three books the most useful references.

Whilst writing up the locations, I tended to try and paraphrase and build on Vance's original text where possible to give as much of a flavour of his world as I could. I discovered just how inconsistent he is on locations and genealogy as the story developed (much more than I had realised). This was a challenge to overcome; finding the most sensible answer and making that the way things are. Characters required much more concise writing; I'd read the Vancian text, then write the entry, drawing upon key phrases in descriptions where I could.

The hardest section I found to write was Dahaut; when you analyse the text, a huge amount of the story takes place in that country, even if you exclude the magical Forest of Tantrevalles. The initial cut and paste of the CATMA data spanned fifty pages! Once written, I exported to Word format (using Word on my Mac) and loaded the output to the shared Dropbox folder for review.

Challenges I have had along the way; several serious work incidents that just sucked time away; the loss of my Chromebook for three weeks while Lenovo fixed it; the changes in the youngest child which led to a later bedtime and challenges on getting the time to write with space to think. I find I need to be able to absorb and reflect on the books when I write to get the best out of myself.

Google Keep (on the right) in use for top level references

Later changes to the workflow have involved using Google Keep in parallel while writing for references related to that specific document. I use Evernote for my main archive, so this was quite simple as my Keep references are pretty short.

The writing has been done across a number of Chromebooks, Macs and a Windows laptop. On the whole, I preferred the Macs, but the Chromebook was great when I went on holiday.

I'd definitely use this workflow again. CATMA is very powerful; it focuses down really well on the key elements of the text. However, having fully searchable text was almost as useful, as it meant that I could check references really quickly. Once I'd worked out what I was doing with the application, it was quite a swift process to be marking up across all the keywords as I read through Lyonesse's text. It was certainly more practical than using highlighters and post-it notes combined with lists of references, and much more useable once I got to the stage of drawing it all together.

I'm still finishing the last few sections, but what I have seen of my fellow author's work-in-progress makes me very excited for the final product and the gorgeous map is an inspiration.

6 July 2019


In Hangouts, no one can hear you scream!


Now I've gone and done it! I'm committed to running two games of the new Alien RPG over Hangouts and/or Discord & Roll20. One game is surrounded by the other as it is a single session.

It's going to be an interesting August and September.

Add to that the fact that I am limbering up to run Curse of Strahd and playing Coriolis already...

Worldbreaker Finale


After two years of playing and 34 sessions, we completed Worldbreaker tonight, an epic campaign for Pelgrane Press's The Esoterrorists. Somehow, we succeeded and, much to our surprise, survived.

Big shout out to Richard for his superb cat-herding skills and excellent GMing. Thanks to my fellow players Paul, Nigel, Julian and Jon for all the fun. Hat tip to Robin Laws for the weirdly compelling campaign plot.

Enjoyably epic, this has a completely different flavour to Albion's Ransom, feeling more like a Daniel Craig James Bond movie than a gritty TV investigation.

We played virtually using Google Hangouts and a forum to coordinate information.

3 June 2019

The Fall of Rome

Off work today looking after the kids as it's half term. It's been a pretty grim day, with lots of rain. They did get a good runabout earlier but once they started to get fractious I decided that it was boardgame time and dug out Pandemic: Fall of Rome. It's not one that we've played before, but they do like the Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert games which use some of the same underpinning mechanics.

The lads who saved Rome

Set up didn't take too long, but it was a little challenging due to all the questions. We quickly got underway. Each person takes the role of a character. I was a Consul, Nathan the head of the Navy and Aidan the Army. We were quite lucky with the draws there.

Rather than a disease pool (as in Pandemic), you have five tribes of barbarians who are trying to expand into the empire. Each turn you can take four actions. These include the normal movement options you'd expect in this kind of game, but you can also create up to five forts (which allow you to defend key cities efficiently) and recruit legions amongst others.

Once you've acted, you draw two cards from the player deck. These will either be events (can be played at any time), cities or the dreaded revolt card. You collect sets of city cards to trade in as an alliance with a tribe to make them non-hostile. It doesn't stop them entering the Roman territory or even causing a city to be sacked, but it does mean that you can recruit them into your legions. The revolt card causes a card to be drawn from the bottom of the barbarian deck and three cubes representing that tribe are placed at that location. This can trigger a sacking event if the players are unlucky. The played cards are reshuffled and placed back on top of the deck in time-honoured Pandemic fashion. The invasion rate tracker is raised a level. This starts to reduce the level you can recruit legions at and also increases the number of cards drawn in the invasion phase.

Then it's time to draw from the barbarian deck for the invasion phase. You draw a card with a route, tribe and city. This determines where the extra cube that represents tribes moving into the empire will be placed. It is always placed closest to the source/entry point of the tribe concerned, so a continuous chain is established through the empire. Should a fourth cube be placed, then the city is sacked and instead, cubes representing the tribe are placed in all adjacent cities, which can cause further sackings. This can be pretty nasty. Each city stacked increases the decline track and Rome gets closer to falling. You start at two cards drawn and it jumps as the invasion tracker is incremented.

Combat occurs either in a battle action (where the player rolls up to three special D6 depending on how many legions are present). This can reduce legions, barbarians, both or trigger a special action. Combat also occurs in the invasion stage of the turn. Legions in cities that have no fort are ambushed and destroyed by the barbarians, the only upside is that the barbarians don't survive to settle. If a city has a fort, a legion is removed to destroy the invader.

You win by having treaties with all the tribes, or having treaties with some of the tribes and driving the others from the map. You can lose in multiple ways; running out of cards in the player deck; having the decline track hit the end; having Roma sacked.

All in all, the game definitely has a feel for its subject and plays well. The legion mechanic is different and we were pretty nervous at the end as we tried to get the last two cards to seal a treaty with the Ostrogoths before the player deck ran out. They were too spread out to make a military solution viable in the time we had left. Fortune favoured us and we prevailed. Along the way, having treaties in place so we could recruit in large numbers of barbarians also helped to keep us in play.

The kids enjoyed the game; however, I don't think I'll be buying any more with this engine as we have the two Forbidden games, the original Pandemic and the Cthulhu version. That's not to denigrate the game, just to say that we have enough.

28 May 2019

Alien Quickstart - first thoughts


So, the Alien Quickstart dropped last night just before 11pm so I stayed up to read it.

Some quick thoughts:

* This is very much an evolution of Coriolis, but more brutal.
* It's very pretty.
* You have four stats, and 12 skills (3 linked to each stat)
* Four character types - Frontier Colonists, Space Truckers, Company Reps and Colonial Marines.
* Usual Year Zero Engine - roll a handful of dice from stat + skill + gear looking for 6s (actually a star on the special dice you'll be able to get).
* Pushing a skill roll (re-rolling failures except facehuggers) adds a stress level
* Certain situations (like being jumped by a xenomorph or finding out your colleague is an Android) generate stress levels.
*Stress levels act as extra dice you must use. They can generate extra successes (because you're stressed and more focussed) but if you roll a 1 (facehugger) then you panic.
*Panic is bad. You roll a D6 plus your current stress level. Low results mean you are scared and a bit flakey, high results can result in paranoia, violence or catatonia. Certain character types can go the full Hudson and attack things instead.
* You can lose stress by relaxing and feeling safe.
* Resource management can be important (Air/Water/Food/Power) and running out has mechanical effects and adds to stress.
* Cinematic mode will be brutal on characters.
* Cinematic mode runs in three acts. Each character has a personal agenda in each act.
* Completing personal agendas gains you a story point. This sits with the player (not the character) and can be spent for an automatic success (ie a 6 roll).
* Agendas can drive PVP. Once it escalates, the GM can take over a character and they become an NPC.
* The cinematic mode scenario in the game is likely to chew through incautious characters. Fortunately, there are plenty of spares.
* The scenario does recognisably feel like an Alien film.
* The Xenomorph stats have a random roll table for 'special moves'. You can roll this, or just pick and make it up yourself. Looks like the tables in Forbidden Lands.

The production values are really high. The art is great. It will definitely catch the feel of the films. The material presented is more aligned to a one shot rather than a campaign (but the campaign material is not presented in this). The rules seem comprehensive and thought through and there are few errors in the text.

Definitely pleased that I ordered this.

Makes me Smile


The geek in me can’t help but smirk when I see this van at work. 

North Star 2019 report

Our second North Star, a convention born of an impulse decision after a conversation between Graham and I about TravCon, provided a great weekend of gaming. After a pretty frantic Friday completing my game preparation as a result of game changes in the last two weeks, I rolled into the Garrison around 9am on Saturday to find that my co-conspirator Graham had already set the room up. I only needed to get the badges out and the signs up before we started. Like Revelation, North Star has a very relaxed feel compared to the start of Furnace. It’s probably the difference of thirty-five people instead of seventy-five.

My first game was Space 1889 run by Paul Mitchener. I’ve loved this setting for a long time, but never really got it to the table so the opportunity to play was something that I jumped at. This was my first visit to Venus, and it was by Zeppelin, piloted by my young blonde German inventor, Lena. Keary was playing the explorer who owned the airship, and we naughtily added some suggestive shenanigans into the game. Of course, he was my ‘Uncle’! We quickly encountered a flyer working using Martian lift-wood technology (something which shouldn’t work, and indeed is one of the reasons the British aren’t in control of the planet). This moved to attack us; they failed, naturally and we ended up in a search for the source of the lift-wood and also the crew of another Zeppelin who were going to be forced to fight for their lives in a gladiatorial arena in a hidden city. We managed to succeed with some derring-do and had a lot of fun. It ended with us setting up a tri-partite company to exploit the new technology as good Imperialists do. I enjoyed the setting, the game and the player’s take on the characters. I’d definitely like to look at this again. Shout out to Paul, who was one of our hero GMs, running three slots.

Morrisons for lunch, with an uninspiring feta salad.

Slot 2 brought Chitter, a game set in the Skyrealms of Jorune universe using Genesys run by Richard Talbot, one of my fellow BITS colleagues. I’d read Jorune years ago but had never got to the point of playing or running it. I’d also never gone anywhere near Genesys in any of its forms, so this was a real voyage of discovery for me. The adventure had a vibe of films like ‘Southern Comfort’ or ‘Deliverance’. We were a militia patrol sent into the deep forest to try and find out what was killing all our livestock. Our ragtag group consisted of a pure-strain human and most of the hybrid creatures from the human geneering programme. We managed to establish a good relationship with the locals quite quickly, and soon set off in pursuit of the cause of the trouble. My Bron (a Bear hybrid) was the squad leader and had to pull our dysfunctional and rag-tag band together. Somehow, we did it all by the numbers and managed to succeed at the plot. I found that Genesys worked well enough, but I’m not sure why I’d use it over other games. Jorune was interesting, and Richard had prepared a rich and interesting scenario for us. Richard was also one of our hero GMs, running three games back-to-back.

Dinner was the traditional trip to KFC with Keary and John.

The evening slot was my first game, Plausible Deniability. This was a Traveller scenario which I’d previously tested at TravCon 2018. It is built around the player characters signing up as the crew of a Type T Patrol Cruiser deployed as a deniable privateer asset by the Imperium. It built upon the Letter of Marque supplement, and I introduced some elements of troupe play so the whole command crew didn’t end up on every mission. There was much privateering fun and a scramble for funds to keep the ship aloft. The crew were dysfunctional (well, they were pirates!). Tom and Andy did a grand job of ripping everyone off. Fil brilliantly played the noble and owner-on-board whose ‘Daddy had bought me this ship”. The players did really well and met the scenario objectives in a far more direct manner than I expected. There were some comments that it felt like the start of a campaign; these nailed it as the scenario was designed as the pilot/introduction to a campaign. I enjoyed this and need to develop it a bit further. I think my GMing was okay for this game, but tiredness was starting to show.

A visit to the bar, followed by rather a late one catching up with Neil McGurk and drinking some of the bottle of Jura that I had brought with me. We called it a day at 2am.

The next morning started too early when I got a text at 6.50am from my eldest’s football coach wishing him luck in the match that he had that day. A little too early on a Sunday, I think!

Garrison breakfast with the Baldowskis and Graham, and then we were off again for Day 2.

Slot 4 had me playing Valkyrie Nine, Paul Baldowski’s fun SF horror using the Cthulhu Hack. Having subsequently bought and read the book, I am surprised how well we managed to stumble around in our guise as the moonbase’s robots missing most of the clues yet managing to come out with a positive solution. Of course, we all died, but not before my bot achieved self-awareness and insanity. Great group of players and much fun was had. I really enjoyed myself, and Paul didn’t seem too jaded to be running it for the second slot in a row. He had kindly stepped up as a hero GM to fill a gap when one of the other GMs pulled out of the convention at short notice.

Lunch was an okay Chicken Salad from Morrisons. Quick preparation for the raffle, which went well. As usual, I managed not to win anything.

Slot 5 was the game that had been both filling me with anticipation and terror in the run-up, a playtest of Blue Planet: Recontact with the scenario Trouble in Paradise. The scenario is the kick off for one of the campaign frames in the game. The characters are all part of Red Sky Charters, a family business already struggling to make ends meet. The game opens in media res, with the characters kidnapped by a group of Russian mobsters. It worked really well and the players just went through it. We all had a learning curve to do with the game, but the setting worked for people familiar with all the previous material and for those that had never seen it before. The players were awesome and it felt like the opening of a TV series. I’d have loved to have run a follow up with the same group. I’m pleased with how I GMd this. I was enthused and full of energy mostly. I will do this again. Big thanks to Alison, Tilly, Paul, Dr Bob and Neil for making this such good fun.

And then it was all over. Graham had already left, and by the time I departed around 6.30pm, the last group was coming to a close. It worked well enough that we’re going to do it all again in 2020 over the weekend of 9th/10th May.

14 May 2019


The stuff of nightmares...


Alien - The Roleplaying Game Trailer from Free League on Vimeo.

One of my favourite SF franchises is coming as an RPG from a company whose work I like. The artwork here is fantastic. I suspect this is going to be really popular at cons.

The One Ring - End of Season 7

The One Ring image - By Xander - own work, (not derivative from the movies), Public Domain,
We finished Season 7 of our The One Ring RPG 'The Darkening of Mirkwood' inspired campaign tonight, brilliantly run by Paul.

(minor spoilers for The Darkening of Mirkwood follow)

This season saw our final confrontation with the Gibbet King, our nemesis since the early days. We managed to rally the Beornings after the disruption of Beorn's ascension with the Hunter and slay the Gibbet King's body. A hard autumn passage over the Misty Mountains got us to Rivendell for the winter, where we were happy to meet Elrond again.

After a short respite, we travelled to the Barrow Downs, unearthing a barrow to find a blade capable of destroying our enemy permanently. The wights inhabiting it were destroyed, and we headed north to Bree, and then to Fornost Erain and the North Downs. A hard passage across Angmar took us to Carn Dum, which we entered through tunnels that our new Noldor companion remembered of old. We penetrated the inner sanctum, dispelling wraiths and destroying the Gibbet King permanently as he manifested in a new body.

Fleeing, we quickly built a significant lead on the pursuing orc forces, but two of the fellowship nearly fell when we foolhardily attacked an orc patrol. We found evidence that the Enemy was coordinating with Angmar. Fortunately we prevailed, and rendezvoused with the Rangers, and then helped them destroy the orc forces.

We rest for the winter in Rivendell, awaiting our return to the east of the Misty Mountains. My Dwarf yearns for Erebor as it is more than two years since I was last home.

Our campaign will return.

1) Eyes of Sauron are nasty
2) Once you drop endurance below fatigue there's a potential death spiral as you drop equipment to avoid being weary.
3) We always felt threatened, despite having characters that are very highly developed.
4) It is fantastic to play an extended campaign in a world we love.
5) Bringing in a Noldor elf with an developed party works really well.
6) Jag, Elina and Simon are brilliant players who make this something I really look forward to.