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...

Friday Night at the Festival

We had a fun Friday evening down on Wetherby Ings, enjoying the annual Wetherby Food Festival (facebook link) despite the best efforts of the weather to thwart us. Rather than the promised thunderstorms, we had drizzle, short downpours and a cooler evening. However, it was nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be when I was driving home from work; the motorway ground to a halt the rain was so heavy.

Wetherby Festival - Blueprint Blues Brothers 1
The Blueprint Blues Brothers

Wetherby Food Festival
They've even got the Bluesmobile

The live band of the evening was the Blueprint Blues Brothers, who gave it their all despite the rain trying to stop play. We sheltered during the showers under some of the gazebos, but it didn't dampen the atmosphere. The boys enjoyed the funfair and messing around with their mates.

Wetherby Food Festival
Soggy but happy
Dinner was a variety - feta and olive wraps, Pad Thai and Crispy Duck & fries for that Greek-Thai-Fusion effect - washed down with beer from the Rudgate Brewery and later coffees and hot chocolate from the Coffee Galore stand (whose owners were very friendly). Aidan polished it off with a chocolate and marshmallow pancake.

Wetherby Festival - Blueprint Blues Brothers - meet n greet
The Bar with the Blues Brothers mixing it up

Our fellow attendees sprouted umbrellas, made improvised shelters with picnic blankets, sheltered under the tables or just ignored the rain in a stoic manner. Nothing was spoiling their fun!

Wetherby Food Festival - Mustn't Grumble
True British grit...

Books in June 2019


Vienna Spies (Alex Gerlis)
An interesting story set towards the end of the Second World War in Europe, mainly in Vienna. The British attempt to establish a network in the city to make contact with an influential opposition politician who has been in hiding for many years to prepare for the power struggle after the war is won. The Soviets attempt to do the same thing and the agents from both sides have come into contact before. It's a story of rival intelligence operations from allies who know that they will be enemies in the future against the collapsing Nazi regime in a country which wholeheartedly embraced the Third Reich.

Enjoyable, and there were points when I was anxious for some of the characters I liked, but I think I prefer the way that Luke McCallin's 'Man from Berlin' books covered this same theme. If I could give a half mark, this would be 3.5 out of 5. However, I will read his new book set in 1970s Berlin at some point to see how that goes.

Scattered Among Strange Worlds (Aliette de Bodard)
Interesting short stories. The first deals with dislocation and disengagement, as a younger woman returns from exile to honour her grandmother. The second deals with Mer People exiles from a polluted ocean and the call to return to the sea. Enjoyable.

Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master (Michael Shea)
D&D focused but a good collection of tips for building and running a role playing campaign. Some ideas are quite thought-provoking.

In Morningstar's Shadow: Dominion of the Fallen Stories (Aliette de Bodard)
Vignettes from the universe of “The House of Shattered Wings”, which I’ve yet to read. Angels have fallen from the heavens and magic is real. Warring Houses have shattered Paris. This is a collection a fragments of tales. I liked the setting and stories and will read the novel as a result.

The Art and Soul of Blade Runner 2049 (Tanya Lapointe)
Absolutely gorgeous art book full of concepts, art work and photos that shine a light on the development of the movie.


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