The GROGNARD Files

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

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.

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.

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.

We braved the storms, flooded roads and dodgy bacon butties to get to our annual trip to Southport for the 24 hour RPG charity event. This year, the charity is Galloway’s Society for the Blind and it is still possible to donate.

Applying the GROGNARD files principle “if you buy it, you play it” I scheduled a game of Legend of the Five Rings as I have been collecting the attractive books since the beginning of the year. The Fantasy Flight version is a stunning production with wonderful maps and an interesting approach which uses adventures published alongside companion supplements to build your knowledge of The Emerald Empire: Rokugan.

It’s a well loved setting that has appeared in four previous RPG editions, a deck-building card game and attractive board games.

Thanks to Tim and friends for organising the event and the invite.

Here’s the table, 5 highlights and a fumble.

Beginner Game

The player characters are headed to the Topaz Championship for their gempuku, a coming-of-age ceremony and initiation as a samurai. On the face of it, the adventure is on training rails, taking you through the process of interpreting the fancy dice, step-by-step, but in play, there’s a compelling plot woven into the events that really caught the attention of the players in unexpected ways.

Competition

There’s a series of events to test the skill and knowledge of the wannabe samurai, from obstacle courses to interpretation of law. There was a very intense game of Go which resulted in an unmasking of the Crane courtier who lost their composure due to taking too long to deliberate over the next move.

Poetry in motion

During the poetry round of the competition, two players wrote a haiku. One was a subtle message of “we know what you’re up to” to the Scorpion clan.

The Emerald Champion

Following the Topaz Championship, it was off to the Palace of The Emerald Champion to investigate a possible murder. This very entertaining scenario is an extension to the Beginner Game which is available for free from Fantasy Flight’s website.

Judgement Day

The confrontation with an assassin at the end was suitably dramatic. The Lion bushi PC was cleaved with a poisoned katana, but managed to whip out his wakizashi and kill his opponent. A thrilling moment in the final hour of the game.

The players decided that ‘truth-will-out’ when submitting their report to the Ruby Champion, but learned that in Rokugan, sometimes the most honourable approach is to suppress the truth.

The newly-appointed Emerald Magistrates were despatched to the wall to assist the Crab.

Time

These 12 hour slots are great for getting immersed into a game and allowing characters to breathe. My only regret is that I really liked Legend of the Five Rings and know that it will impossible to fit it in as a regular game. Maybe next year, I’ll run it again and see what happens when the players face the Oni.

The Owl Bear and the Wizard’s Staff is a meet up in Leamington Spa now in its second year. A warm, friendly event where we get together with familiar faces and twitter-handles in addition to a more diverse gathering of local players. There was an entertaining array of games available from the traditional to the new; the mainstream to the more obscure.

Asako_soh is a welcoming host who made sure that the event ran smoothly: He’s the man at the barbecue who ensures everyone has a sausage. During lunch, someone turned to me and said, “goodness me, this has grown, I wonder why?” He took another bite, “samosas, it’s the samosas.”

It was a Cypher day for me. In the morning it was the dimension-jumping The Strange and in the afternoon it was Vurt: both set in Manchester, it was like I hadn’t left the house. Having worked (and played) there for years, the city is part of my psycho-geography, it’s a place intimately woven into my imagination.

Back in the nineties, Manchester was the place to be; the centre of cultural activity thanks to its bands, its dance scene, the baggy fashions of Joe Bloggs, sport and, believe it or not, poetry. While my contemporaries were enjoying thrills, pills and bellyaches of The Hac, I was up the road at Waterstones bookshop, surviving on twiglets, pringles and red wine poured from boxes. After work, I’d attend their author events, featuring William Gibson, Iain Banks, Margaret Atwood, Kim Newman and many others.

Jeff Noon was one of the book-sellers and he would tell anyone that would listen about his novel that he’d been working on. VURT (1993) was originally published by a tiny local, imprint Ringpull Press before gaining awards and a bigger publisher. Noon’s vision of cyber-punkish Manchester where the citizens escape into the wonders (and horrors) of a consensual dream space via the consumption of feathers, captured the imagination of a science fiction audience becoming bored with the conventions of slip-stream fiction. It was followed up by Pollen (1995), Automated Alice (1996) and Nymphomation (1997).

The VURT RPG does a good job of codifying elements of the setting into gamable material. It’s not the first place you’d expect to find the type of adventure that usually drives RPGs, but the rule-book does set it out well with inspiring hooks and finer details extended from concepts in the books.

Following the principle “if you buy it, you play it” I scheduled VURT as my #OBaWS game earlier in the year. It has been slipping in and out of my subconscious ever since. Like a shadow, I’ve been walking between normality and the game for months. In the end, the session didn’t bear the weight of my expectations (for reasons spelled out in the latest GROGPOD) but, it’s a setting I’d like to explore further, perhaps in an extended sequence to let the dream worlds breathe a little more.

OBaWS staff attracts great, open-minded players with sense of fun and imagination. Long May it continue.

It must be something in the samosas.

Editorial meeting. 6 months of programming agreed and “no more Actual Play segments”
It wasn’t all work, work, work … there were ducks
I normally see these people in tiny square on my PC screen on Roll 20.
Pre-con curry. I learned that 3500 people are employed in the games industry in Leamington Spa.
The place we stay is terrible, but we’ve been twice so it counts as ‘tradition’
Dave wove a great session around our ‘Men in Black’
It’s the King of Dungeons!
Blythy and the cast of Achtung! Cthulhu (FATE) “Where Shantaks Dare”
Before you consume a black feather, read the instructions …
Numenera RPG

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The GROGNARD files is back with the latest episode which looks in-depth at Numenera RPG based on the Cypher System which was the first new-fangled game that we played when we returned to the hobby.

There’s a great First, Last and Everything from Kaye Elling (make sure you follow the progress of her Judge Death model on Twitter).

Also included is an update on the latest projects. You can support us via Patreon.

Episode 30 was all about the Blake’s 7 RPG, the fan produced roleplaying game that was printed and distributed by Horizons, the Blake’s 7 Appreciation Club. When the GROGPOD was published one of the GROGSQUAD linked it to Kin-Ming Looi and Zoe Taylor, the designers of the game.

It was lovely to hear that the two friends are listeners and were more than happy to share their reminiscences of producing the game via messenger, while Zoe was perusing a stately home and Kin was geocaching.

Patreons can find the complete crew in the GROGLOCKER

Dirk: We always begin our interviews by going backwards to the point that you started playing. What were you playing and who were you playing with?

Zoe: I started playing with Call of Cthulhu; I always had in interest in gothic horror and my boyfriend at the time wanted to try role-playing so [we played with] two of his mates.

Kin-Ming: In my case, that would be the 1977 edition of Basic Dungeons and Dragons; played initially back in 1979/80 with my mother and sister but that was very short-lived as I had watched some older boys at school playing Advanced D&D and was aware that the Basic set was distinctly simplistic by comparison (e.g. all weapons did 1d6 damage). I quickly graduated to AD&D. After I got over the shock of the book prices, I played with friends at school. Things really took off when I started going to boarding school with lot more time to play on account of not a whole lot else going on!

Dirk: How did you meet? Were you playing RPGs together?

Zoe: We met due to Blake’s Seven. We both joined Horizon, the B7 appreciation society and the Newsletters had penpal section; we started off writing letters to each other about B7, Dr Who and other science fiction. I think it was a while before we met in person at a Horizon gathering. Then at B7 Cons too. We just got on so well. We planned at various times to join the same game but it did not quite work out.

Kin-Ming: I’d tried running a play-test of B7 RPG at my local club, figured it had gone down well and was do-able, but needed more work. I thought, I’d go to the pen pals section of the Horizon newsletter looking for a collaborator. My, this takes me back. The receptionist at work was puzzled by the sheer volume of personal post I was putting in the out-tray!

Zoe: My goodness me, yes, letters were flying both ways, at least once a week and they were very long

Kin-Ming: I was in the privileged position of being an early owner of an inkjet and then a laser printer, not to mention Ami Pro, an early Windows WYSIWYG word processor. Email connectivity took a little longer to connect – it’d be intolerable now – but, back then, compared with the frequency of Horizon newsletters, it felt miraculously fast.

Dirk: What is it about Blake’s 7 that caught your imagination? Why do think it’s so enduring?

Kin-Ming: For me, B7 had a compellingly bleak, grim feel to it, had a large ensemble cast that both seemed suited to group RPG play and, unlike the likes of Star Wars, didn’t have an off-the-shelf game I could buy. It it had, I’d just have bought it. The many one-liners, especially Avon’s, struck me as the sort of things players said in games, hence the list of quotes in the rule-book.

Zoe: I agree it was bleak. The lack of budget for special FX meant there was more emphasis on characters. It also gave stronger female role-models; as an electronic engineer there wasn’t many offered by Star Wars or Dr Who.

Kin-Ming: Yeah, I was hooked on B7 from the first episode I saw, TRIAL (Episode 6, Season 2), when I arrived in the UK. From the start, even at an early age, it astonished me because it referenced a main character having just died in a futile attack on the Federation. Not to mention Travis’ politically expedient court martial for war crimes and his speech on the Federation’s institutional responsibility were all heady stuff for a prime time programme.

It was many years later that I got to see all the previous episodes. Indeed, getting to see episodes was a key reason to go to Horizon meetings. I’d argue the BBC’s release of the full VHS episodes was as important to being able to do the game as PCs and laser printers! Tony Attwood’s Programme Guide was insufficient.

Zoe: Had the advantage of watching from the start. The guide was laughable, because of all the gaps and missing facts, (even so I have all the books.)

Kin-Ming: I did watch every tape at least twice as soon as they came out, once just normally and at least once more to scribble down any relevant detail: sensor detection and engagement ranges, speeds, terminology, world names – the levels of detail the programme guide just didn’t go to. For example, in DUEL (Episode 8, Season 1), I noted how much of a Liberator energy bank each plasma bolt hit drained. I was a war-gamer and these details mattered to me!

Dirk: Tell us more about the design process and the different approaches you took. Were you using the crew or characters that you created?

Kin-Ming: I did look at Traveller, but even if you ignored the Imperium background, it is embedded in the assumptions of the game mechanics: e.g. jump drive, career options, Gauss rifles and fusion guns etc. so that adapting an existing system seemed to be more work than starting from scratch.

Zoe: The systems we both already played influenced the game we created. I had the wargamers group play testing with me, where we tried both new adventures (as a Keeper I was used to creating those) and we tried recreating episodes as a start to see where we could go.

Kin-Ming: My motivation for the design were my wargame design heroes; people like John Hill and Jim Dunnigan who espoused the ‘Design For Effect’ philosophy: the mechanics should be customised to reflect the subject you’re trying to recreate hence the specific skill names (such as ‘sensor operations’) to encourage players to use the right terminology, and getting the first snap-shot off being vital in combat.

The West End Games Star Wars RPG’s chucking loads of dice and reducing them for multiple actions really encouraged flamboyant play. And, for me anyway, Cthulhu and GDW’s 2300AD and Twilight: 2000 were the ideal balance between being complex enough to reflect what I wanted to do and being playable

I ran games with both TV and player-generated characters. Former mainly for one-offs and demos e.g. at conventions and the latter for a campaign at Finchley Games Club. I ran two campaigns, one starting on Post Gauda Prime shortly after the Federation attack on Blake’s base (continuation from final episode).

Zoe: For the play-test all the characters were from the show. As Blythy pointed out in the podcast, without the crew it’s just not the same.

Kin-Ming: Another campaign started off with the classic prisoner transportation to Cygnus Alpha setting, only as the Galactic War starts so the journey is interrupted by the Andromedas. I did a one-off kind of inspired by Sarcophagus (Episode 3, Season 9): the crew encounter a world which unleashed a psychic-Doomsday weapon. Essentially, the setting was very rich and surprisingly consistent for something that was written in the days before boxed sets and ubiquitous Internet access to allow geeky frame by frame dissection. (There is the matter of view long the Intergalactic War lasted, but let’s not talk about that.)

This was first and foremost a game we wanted to play but couldn’t just buy. The idea is Horizon publication came later but even then, the one thing you could expect from Horizon members is they know their B7. We did have the idea of a sourcebook but that never quite got going.

Are you still playing?

Kin-Ming:It’s been a long time since I played any tabletop RPGs. I started working in management consultancy involving travelling a whole lot. I still keep picking stuff up from Bundle of Holding and DriveThruRPG to read though. I have hung on to a core of games in physical form: Cthulhu, 2300AD and Twilight: 2000, mainly.

Zoe: Great to hear the podcast: someone else was interested in a project Ming and I had been passionate about at the time. It has made me think about RPGs again. Thanks to The GROGNARD files, it has made me subscribe to How we Roll, Good friends of Jackson Elias … and looking at other CoC podcasts

There was a copy at a second book supplier a while back

Kin-Ming: Oh yeah, that’s right, a friend sent me a link to someone selling a copy at £198! Wonder if it sold?