The GROGNARD Files

Table-top RPGs from back in the day and today.

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It’s the end of the world as we know it, but we feel fine, because we’ve been gaming, a lot. We review the year in gaming over a pint with Clint, the pub dog.

Jamie Thomson is back looking over his career in Fighting Fantasy, The Way of the Tiger game books, The Fabled Lands and The Dark Lord Series (to the sound of a very noisy computer fan).

Check out EN World and vote for your favourite podcasts.

Recommended here are dPercentile, Role Play Rescue, Monster Man, Smart Party, Improvised Radio Theatre with Dice, Red Moon Roleplaying, GROGTALK, Appendix N Book Club and Breakfast in the Ruins.

Please keep us going by pledging to our Patreon.

As an addendum to Episode 35 and our guest Paul Fricker’s interview, this is a quick overview of Demon’s Drawl, the fanzine that first gave him his lucky break.

First launched in July 1983 Demon’s Drawl was produced for a couple of years before transforming into Telegraph Road. The energy behind the zine was editor Jeremy Nuttall who was based Congleton in Cheshire and it originally emerged from the Chaos Tribe Fantasy RPG Club. Overall, it has the appearance of a collaborative effort with ‘a team’ of contributors who are diligently acknowledged in each issue. The list of participants include some familiar names: David Robinson and GROGSQUAD regular Nick Edwards.

The overall tone of the zine is ‘sensible and committed’ as it lacks some of the fripperies that marked the zine-scene of the time. The resources for its campaign world of Galadra are serious minded, inviting contributions from the readership to create “a consistent, good and believable” world.

At its peak, it had a print run of 400 copies with 80 subscribers, which confirms Nick’s theory that this represented the entire active fandom in the UK at the time and that one in four of them were producing their own ‘zine.

The tone of the ‘Let us talk’ letters-pages debate about ‘Classless Systems” is representative of the general earnest approach: “what happens if I don’t want to play a character who falls within this strict categorisation?”

Most articles were inviting participation by adopting a conversational rather than an authoritative tone. It’s a great example of where the RPG gamers who wanted to push the boundaries of what they were playing could have a space to share ideas.

The editors clearly had an eye for talent too – they must have spotted something in Paul’s contribution: subtle shades of cosmic horror and a precise articulation of the human condition.

* If you want to see more, check out the Patreon only GROGLOCKER at the end of next week.

Dirk the Dice

by Paul Fricker

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What makes Pulp “pulp” we ask ourselves in this episode.

It features the interview with Paul Fricker that we recorded at GROGMEET19. He’s one of the hosts of The Good Friends of Jackson Ellias, who we joined in the E.N.World Hall of Fame, thanks to the generous votes from the GROGSQUAD.

There’s also a First, Last and Everything from Lee Williams and much more.

The date has been in my diary for months, but I’d left the prep for WinterCon 2020 too late. It’s a new meet-up hosted at Fan Boy Three in Manchester and organised by Newt Newport as an off-shoot of the monthly Go-Play Manchester (home of the one-shots).

As part of my pledge to play a different Post-Apocalyptic themed game every month in 2020, I had pitched Gamma World (first edition) and the first module The Legion of Gold for my submission: both are available on drive thru rpg, as is the game upon which it is based (Metamorphosis Alpha which can lay claim to be the first ever, mass-produced, SF RPG).

Reading the game this week I realised that it is not really aimed towards one-shot play. It encourages hex-crawling through the desolated waste-lands of post-devastation America and furnishes the GM with encounter tables and examples of artefacts and creatures/ flora and fauna that can be found when PCs explore the map. The Legion of Gold provides a pre-populated area for the PCs to explore with three ‘mini-adventures’ (the supplement is of really good quality compared with some of the TSR material of the time).

How could I transform it into a one-shot? I decided early on that it needed more to it to make it pop, so I turned to Baz Steven’s King of Dungeons to introduce some explosive elements:

  • I knocked down the bonus threshold and was generally more generous with the application of positive modifications in the player’s favour.
  • Advantage dice, crits, fumbles, escalation dice and standardised target numbers were imported from King of Dungeons. As were, montage scenes (to cover the travel through the hex map) and the guild bonds

If you’ve played Gamma World in the past you’ll know that one of the features of the setting are the ‘Cryptic Alliances’ (factions that have developed following the apocalypse). We started the session by randomly generating a Cryptic Alliance (their very own guild) thus the Union of the Pure Mutant Animals was born – their symbol was an ‘animal’, so they became mutant-humanoid otters. Yes, it had to be otters. Their enemies were the Badders (this randomly generated the foes for the final encounter).

Part of the fun of Gamma World is creating characters by generating mutations, some of them favourable, some of them disadvantageous. I decided to give the players a character sheet that was a ‘playbook’ format that would allow them to choose aspects of their character.

Generating 5 character sheets in the style of a playbook turned out to be a time-consuming task. Each one took about an hour, so I had an early start (4.30 am!) to get up and finish them off!

It was worth it as it turned out to be a fun session that included toxic belching, waist-coats, a land-pedalo in the shape of a swan and clever use of a phillips-head screwdriver. I had ‘Mad Max written by Edgar Rice Buroughs’ in mind, but it was a bit more gonzo. I will definitely play it again (with the King of Dungeons elements) as it makes a good con game. It also proves that King of Dungeons is effective as a framework that can be overlaid on vintage d20 systems to fire them up a little.

Hero, just for one day

My daughter Amelia came along to play her very first RPG. This was either her attempt to ‘try new things’ and discover the world of role-playing games, or a clever attempt to legitimately avoid revising for her exams: you decide.

She chose to play Black Panther alongside my Wolverine in a game of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (using the Cortex Plus system) hosted with aplomb by Guy Milner. He always does a great job of plainly explaining the system and framing the session in an engaging, easy to follow manner.

He had his work cut out with Cortex Plus as it is a quirky, dice-pool system with some interesting bells and whistles to complicate matters (plot points for the players to bump up their dice or activate effects, and a doom pool that allows the GM to bring in reinforcements, or, if they have 2 d12 they can end a scene).

I thought the system worked really well as a superheroes mechanic as it allowed us to narrate our actions and build up a dice pool based on the effects deployed from the character sheet. It’s a gamey game that works best at emulating comic strip punch ups : rip apart a T-rex with adamantium claws? I don’t mind if I do.

Stability affects physical and emotional states and once effected, it adds another dice into your opponent’s dice pool (which is neat). “Wolverine is a sensitive soul,” I said to Amelia.

“You’ll have no problem with that, you cried like a baby all the way through Little Women.”

Yeah, thanks for that, don’t you have some revision to do?

E.N. World Poll

To make a fantastic day even better, the news came through that we came top of the Top ‘Talk’ Podcasts of 2019 in E.N. World’s forum. The GROGNARD files joins The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, the winners of last year’s 1st poll, in the Hall of Fame. It’s a ‘just for fun’ poll, but it’s really reassuring that people are listening and enjoy the podcast enough to take the time to vote. Thank you to the GROGSQUAD for mobilising.

The GROGPOD has had a fantastic year and it has been good to collaborate with other podcasts that have done well in the poll too: we are always grateful to Baz and Gaz at The Smart Party for their encouragement and helping us discover different facets of the hobby that we’ve missed, they have helped to boost the GROGPOD profile by inviting me to a panel at UK Games Expo and to a couple of round-table discussions; we also worked with Red Moon Roleplaying to produce the brooding, intense Actual Play of Stormbringer and appear live on stage with How We Roll and Scott from The Good Friends of Jackson Ellias for a memorable Call of Cthulhu recording, live in front of an audience.

We’ve got at least another 12 months in us and we’ll continue to do the best we can.

In many ways, this isn’t a gaming podcast, it’s a convoluted means of reuniting everyone who attended Marillion’s Welcome to the Garden Party on 28th June 1986 at The Milton Keynes Bowl.

Thanks for your support.

Innovative use of a bun tray to keep those Cortex Plus dice tidy
Some of the mutations are a bit “off the wall”
Example of one of the ‘play books’
The Union of Pure Mutant Animals Unite – I can’t believe you’re not Otter.
The King of Dungeons elements made the combats more spiky and fun
Gamma World has a ‘mini-game’ that’s used to ‘unlock the secret of an artefact’ – it can blow up in your face if you’re not careful, but it mainly involves going in a loop.
Amelia was the only mutant otter with a laser rifle.

She missed every time. This is the point when she thought it was a good idea to shoot a laser rifle at @clownfist ‘s head to remove a Zarn attached to his neck. It worked!
Live Action RPG (with Jamie Thomson)

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INTRO: We are still recovering from a successful GROGMEET19. I picked up some new games along the way, including Pendragon and the new Eberron supplement for D&D (thanks to the coverage that they received on The Smart Party).

OPEN BOX (with Jamie Thomson): Features editor for White Dwarf between 1981-84, author of Fighting Fantasy books, the Way of the Tiger and Fabled Lands gamebooks. He has been working on Dice Men: Games Workshop 1975 – 1985 with Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson.

OPEN BOX LARPing: Blythy and I have been friends for 40 years, so we celebrate with a memoir of how we met and share our thoughts on Killer, which is still available for download.

FIRST LAST AND EVERYTHING: Shannon Ferguson aka Angry Monk shares the first game he played, the last game he played and the game that means everything to him.

LARPING part 2: We talk our experiences of DIY Larping in Newton Le Willows.

OUTRO: More details of our Patreon projects.

Handing out Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls
The Supreme Scenario Supervisor Simon Burley
Andy Hemming created a world fit for Galactic Heroes (to kill each other)
Chocks Away! Mercenaries Spies and Private Eyes – Cross of Iron Bru
MERP or an Ent Poetry Jam
“Let’s consult the Resistance Table”
In Space … no one can hear you scream! The new Alien RPG
Doc Con Cowie is crowned “King of Dungeons”
GROGNARDs Assemble at the pub!
GROGPOD live! With Paul Fricker

You can tell you’re getting older when GROGMEET seems to come around more quickly than it did. Now in its fourth year, this is the annual meet up of the GROGSQUAD (listeners to the podcast) in Manchester. It’s a get together to play great role-playing games from the past or new editions of games from the eighties or games with old-school sensibilities (and some new ones from today to muddy the waters).

I now have to accept that it can be no longer described as a “one-day event with a few extra bits”: It’s an entire weekend of gaming where great GMs bring their best work and the players are always energetic and pleased to be participating. It’s a huge team effort, thanks everyone.

Last year the venue was a bit wonky, but this year the wonderful FanBoy3, Manchester’s terrific FLGS, opened its doors to us and made us feel very welcome. Thanks to Heidi and her team for being tremendous hosts.

“You must be very proud of this,” someone said during the day. Proud? All I’ve done is hire a room and arranged for people to be in the same place at the same time. What makes me proud is when come to GROGMEET and say, “thank you, I haven’t played for XX years, thanks to the podcast, me and my mates are back together again.”

Playing a part of reuniting old friends feels special.

As usual, I will give my personal experience of the event, with 5 highlights and a fumble.

MOTHERSHIP

Hosted by Old Scouse Role-player, Neil Benson, this is an OSR fringe event on the Friday afternoon. 5 Wardens (GMs), 5 tables of 5 players in a race against time to set the self destruct on the research vessel USS Arkhangelsk and to evacuate in the escape pod in crazy plan to destroy the weird dimensional rift that has dragged the spacecraft out of hyperspace.

The scenario* is a collaboration between Neil, Sam Vail, Rick Knott, Steve Ray and Dr RPG Griff, each of them have developed a fiendish, stress-inducing encounter as the crew make their way through a ship that has been compromised by demonic Gaunts.

I was a super-sub, called off the bench because Griff had lost his voice to laryngitis and the sub-titling machine was in repair. I focused on atmosphere and tried to keep it at a pace to cover-up the fact that I didn’t know what was going on. I think I got away with it.

The Mothership rules are okay in play. I’m new in the Old School so probably didn’t graduate because when the players came up with good ideas, I let them do it, “can I apply this array of skills to boost my chances?” Sure! “It there a mechanical quad-bike in the bio-dome?” Yes! It goes at the speed of a milk-float and you have to pre-programme it! During the break, it came clear from my fellow wardens that I needed to ramp up the stress.

The android has a distinct advantage that it can keep its head when all around people are losing theirs. The stress mechanic works well as the horror builds and the characters start to panic, while the skin-job creepily carries on obliviously.

When the characters panic, they have to roll on a table, stress points are added to the roll, it seemed to hit the “dies instantly of a heart attack” a little too often. Someone pointed out that they need to watch their cholesterol levels.

The dash for the escape-pod resulted in a bit of player verses player action: a hand-welder verses a sub-machine gun. The androids and ‘Mercy’ the teamster blasted off into space with ‘Free Bird’ booming through the pod.

A cracking start.

“You have a choice; violence or space-dust”

I’ve never been in a game GMd by Neil despite playing with him regularly for over 3 years.

Solar Blades and Cosmic Spells by Diogo Nogueira is a very rules-light game set in the pulp science fiction worlds of Flash Gordon and John Carter of Mars. We began the adventure as prisoners in a strange Panopticon when the doors suddenly open and we have the chance to be free.

In minutes I’d snapped the neck of Slit-Face the gang leader and appointed myself de facto numero uno of the place and had chance to rouse the other gangs with rubbish Henry V-lite speeches.

Now I understand the OSR; it’s all about the hit points, and losing them.

Through various improvised moves and acts of cunning, we managed to get to the control centre where all Hell broke loose. Old Scouser Role-playing came alive when our characters were facing death. There were only a couple of points between success and complete failure. The life-force was from our group was whittled away roll-by-roll as we had a last grasp chance of escape.

“Get out, or you’ll face Dura-hell at the hands of Copper-brain”

Rick Boulder: Sigue Sigue Sputnik

I’ve been on the hunt for Worlds of Wonder to add to my Chaosium collection for a couple of years. It’s always over-priced so I’m applying Zen-like patience in a hope that it will eventually become more at a more affordable level.

Paul Baldowski was great as the GM who worked with us to produce an adventure that was Marvel in the Matrix.

There were some very funny scenes involving Arachnid-Chap and Reckless Demon as they prevented the new civic museum being destroyed by the evil Copper-Brain and his fiery assistant Barbra Cue.

Failed rolls were in abundance as we tried to punch, swing, leap into action. “Can I push the roll?”

“I’m afraid you’ll need to wait for 35 years.”

“Okay, I’ll take the the duck …”

More BRP in the afternoon, this time, the stripped-down version, OpenQuest, devised by D101 Games Newt Newport. This was a playtest of the third edition of the rules, which are currently in development.

We were agents sailing on the seas of fate, intervening in worlds that we encountered on our travels. I took the Duck Sorcerer who immediately needed to be disguised as a dwarf as the land we visited didn’t recognise Ducks.

Newt wove-in some lovely eccentric folk-horror characters as we went on our quest to recover the Stone of Ossric. I liked the farm boy who wanted to be a monster hunter. He carried his granny’s eye in a jar filled with slime, saying it could detect enemies.

We pushed him to the front obviously.

I like OpenQuest, its an unfussy system that allows players to be tactical, I’m looking forward to the new edition.

Getting back on the horse …

I ran a game at Go Play Manchester on Sunday afternoon (a little something extra, because you can’t have too much). Regular followers will know that I ran VURT, the powered-by-Cypher-system game set in Manchester created by Jeff Noon) at Owl Bear and the Wizard’s Staff earlier in the year.

I was disappointed as the game never really took flight. The players were confused rather than intrigued by the adventure and the setting.

The world is a near-future where citizens of Manchester move into a consensual dream-space for entertainment by injesting feathers. Some of the VURT experiences are legal, others are prohibited because of their dangerousness.

I framed it differently this time by providing a more direct mission for them to solve at the beginning, added in some time pressure to keep up the pace and was better at using GM intrusions to inject interesting consequences.

The players loved throwing in the Cyphers – pollen bombs, speed-suppositories and pheromone sprays. I’m still not sold on the system, and I think the setting is a little too oblique if you’re not familiar with the novels, but it worked much better this time.

Fumble: Broken breakfast

Blythy and I started GROGMEET with an excellent breakfast. We even had a beer with it, we were on our holidays after all.

The final breakfast on Sunday wasn’t as successful. There wasn’t enough space for us at the swanky hipster place where everyone else was, so we went to another place nearby.

The best we could manage from a menu filled with yak’s milk and avocados was ‘Beans on Toast’. When it came, it was ‘deconstructed beans on toast’. You had one job people, one job.

Next: GROGMEET scrapbook

* the scenario will be available for download in the patreon GROGLOCKER early next month.

Only those who seek death, or sell it

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INTRO: It’s the first anniversary of Greg Stafford’s passing and to recognise the event, we are celebrating one of his greatest, collaborative creations: Thieves’ World. There’s a quick potted history featured here, if you want to see the supplement for yourself, I’ve made a short unboxing film.

OPEN BOX: Eddy has managed to track down a copy of the supplement from eBay. We open it up together.

FIRST, LAST and EVERYTHING: From Californian GROGSQUADer Will Johnson.

WHITE DWARF: @DailyDwarf ‘s back for White Dwarf in the City.

GAMESMASTER’S SCREEN: Blythy and Dirk try to make the tables work.

OUTRO: Follow us on Patreon.

This week, I have been sorting out the preparations for GROGMEET, our home-grown meet-up based in Manchester at Fan-Boy3. Four years ago it was a tweet-up of 36 gamers we’d been chatting to online. There were boardgames in the morning, an RPG session in the afternoon and the night before, a gonzo-game of Feng-Shui.

Now its a one-day meet-up that that takes place over 3 days with 38 tables of games and a ‘live’ recording of the GROGPOD.

Build it and they will come.

BurritoCon is organised by our friend Old-Scouser Role-player and held in Fan-Boy3 and has a similar feel to Spaghetti-Con in Birmingham which was held on the same day, and to that first GROGMEET. It got its name from the lunch they had on the first meet-up. There were loads of friendly people having fun with each other. It was great to meet some new people as well as say hello to some familiar faces.

Thanks to Neil for organising the event.

Here’s my report, in the usual format, 5 highlights and a fumble (fumble first this time, as I like to fail forward).

  1. Sitting in the railway station ...
Angry man in a local newspaper

“Why do we keep going to the Midlands when there are games on our door-step,” asked Blythy. You’d think it was easier to get to Manchester wouldn’t you?

It’s two years since I moved to Adlington. I’ve caught the train from the station about 20 times. There’s been a problem every time I’ve used it. Heading to BurritoCon in Manchester was no exception. The train was cancelled, I had to go to Chorley (in the the opposite direction), backwards to go forwards, which meant I was an hour late.

2. Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Scanning for salvage and sight-seeing

First game was Traveller game-mastered by Tim, aka @Simplikissimus. The invasion of Aurora by the alien Kafers, has thrown the French Arm into turmoil. Refugees are flooding ‘down the line’ fleeing the slaughter. Whilst Interstellar Governments mobilise, a plucky trader crew are doing their bit ferrying families to the temporary safety of a commercial outpost. But will Port L’Enfer offer a sanctuary for all? And with a million Francs of salvage in the mix, will the crew of the Zuckerzeit have to choose between money and morals?

We chose money. It’s Trav. obvs.

3. “He’s a crushing bore”

One of the problems of being late to a con (apart from the humiliation and breathlessness) is that you don’t get to take part in the pre-gen bun-fight to get the best character.

The last remaining character was the administrator: an ex-Naval engineer who had been dishonourably discharged due to some poor moral choices and an accident that no one likes to talk about. He was a gambler and a bore.

A bit of a typecast really.

4. Move over ‘Theatre of the mind’

Tim presented the session perfectly with interesting details, atmospheric description, colourful and engaging NPCs and there were plenty of decisions for us to make as we carved our path through the situation. The fun was really enhanced though the props too: a dry-wipe map for us to plot our route, counters to measure our fuel, and character images. Best of all was the classic Games Workshop miniatures exploring a crashed freighter on a 3D printed floor-plan!

The best game of Traveller I’ve had for over 30 years.

5. “What year is it?”

The afternoon was a chance to play a one-shot game of 13th Age in Glorantha with the King of The One Shot, Burn After Running’shttps://burnafterrunningrpg.com/ Guy Milner. I’ve never played 13th Age, to be honest, I’ve had trouble working it out. I’ve got 13th Age in Glorantha, but I’ve not been able to extract the implied setting in the core rules to make it Gloranthaen; it just seems like a lot of work.

Guy’s skill as a Games Master is his ability to communicate the core parts of a game, its mechanics, its setting and its features, in a very cogent manner so it’s easy to pick-up and play quickly.

“This duck is a Trickster class and a bit more complicated as it as has features that can break the game,” it was too much of an opportunity for Andy Hemming to miss.

6. Bud’s barb Bera Barbarian by Hanna-Barbera

“Cartoon Glorantha” is how Guy pitches 13th Age and it became clear quickly that this was the type of broad-strokes version of the setting that I enjoy. The feats of 13th Century allow things to be mixed up in unexpected ways rather than the grind of RuneQuest or the more sober outcomes negotiated in HeroQuest.

There were some amusing set-pieces and spectacular montages as we went on the hunt for Gagix Two-Barb, the Queen of the Scorpion Men. The final climatic battle had it all: blood-and-guts, impish spirits, a cough of spluttering feathers, thrown copper pans, an actual flying buffalo, and a troll unable to get into a frenzy. Excellent fun.

I think I get it now too. Thanks Guy.