To illustrate the podcast with our report on our exploits at UK Games Expo 2023 here are a collections of images from the weekend.
If you have been paying attention you’ll know that my gaming has taken a thematic thread this year. I have been playing games that use the concept of the multiverse as a setting. This was not planned, I just fell into it backwards like Dr Strange, but without the eye-popping special FX.
There’s no better metaphor the gaming multiverse than virtual GROGMEET.
This is an online convention that we organise every April. This time, there were forty different pocket universes being discovered by over a hundred registered players, who participating from the comfort of their own homes, exploring new worlds, with new people.
Visiting a million-spheres, near to your kettle while sitting in your favourite chair.
The breadth of games on offer is always astonishing. This year in particular included an impressive menu that embraced the traditional to the indy and everything in-between. Since it first begun back in 2017, it has launched many online gaming groups. It remains an encouraging environment to start online GMing as well as introducing different people to … different people.
PLAY IS THE THING
“You’re playing in all of the sessions?” is the puzzled exclamation I usually hear at various points over the virtual GROGMEET weekend. People can’t understand why would sign-up from Thursday to Sunday. I block out the entire weekend and treat it like I have left the house to go to a convention. There’s a sign put on the door that says that I’m ‘in’, but I’m not ‘in’ in – for all intents and purposes I’m in another place, anywhere in the multiverse.
This play report is in the 1d6 format, five highlights and a fumble.
- MORECOCK’s MULTIVERSE
The weekend kicked off with the usual Thursday night quiz which was the rematch of the pub quiz from the Moorcock/ Tolkien weekender. Players were invited to choose their side to pit Moorcock knowledge against Tolkien knowledge. Really, you needed to know both to win, as there was twenty-five questions on each. If you want to decide if you are Moorcock or Tolkien, follow the links to test yourself at home.
The first of two games I played using Chaosium’s Stormbringer rules was a Hawkmoon game. Someone had breached that most sacred of trust; stealing the very thoughts of the immortal King-Emperor Huron of the Granbretan Empire. The player characters ‘get to the ornithopter’ in an investigation to undercover the conspiracy. The scenario had a fittingly sinister atmosphere which was very evocative of Londra under the Empire.
Designs supplied by @tomtremendously
In the late-night slot (11.00pm – 3.00am) on Saturday night, I was in the Young Kingdoms waiting in Dhakos Harbour as an emissary from Pan Tang delivered gifts to secure an alliance with Jarkor. The player characters were nobles of the court responding to steady corruption of chaos that follows. Beware Pantangians bearing gifts. This was Stormbringer 5th edition rules, a first for me, and it creates characters that are more powerful than the 1st-3rd. It was quite refreshing to be competent, not that it helped against the machinations of Jagreen Lern.
Adventuring across the multiverse was not constrained to Moorcock.
Following the last month’s Book Club I have continued to study the Planescape output from TSR in the early 90s. I was told that players tend to stick in the central city of Sigil rather than taking a tour of the planes.
The Great Modron March addresses this by having episodic adventures that follow the the strange clockwork Modrons parading from Mechanus across Outer Planes of the Great Wheel and the gate-towns of the Outlands. They have started their march 150 years too soon. The campaign is made up of eleven wonderfully inventive scenarios, it was a pity that I could only do three of them.
The joy of running games over consecutive nights is the camaraderie it creates among the players. The characters can experience a range of highs and lows over the nine hours of play. The little characterful events that make a game interesting can be called back as they are still fresh in the memory. The exotic sausage shop of Automata was never far away, for example.
When the group finished on the Sunday night, there was a real sense that they would continue adventuring together, following the Modrons on their journey, because they had formed such a strong in-game companionship. Great. Same again next year? Maybe.
3. CALL OF CTHULHU
For the first time in a long time, I’ve not got a regular game of Call of Cthulhu on the go.
A Saturday afternoon session seemed a perfect chance to stay connected to what remains my favourite game. Why is it my favourite? I love the versatility of the setting for creating mood and engaging situations.
Of Sorrow and Clay is a mystery set in the 1920s Appalachian mountains. The Keeper piled on the atmosphere as we explored the disappearance of our Pa who had gone mad in the woods. Despite some discord technical issues, I’d say that this is one of the best Call of Cthulhu sessions that I’ve played in a long time: beautifully constructed, well developed player characters, and an extraordinarily creepy revelation. Highly recommended.
4. DARK CONSPIRACY
Since virtual GROGMEET started back in 2017, its primary aim has been to introduce people to online gaming by providing a supportive place for people to try out new ideas and run games online for the first time. It was great to play with Lee Williams, running his first online game and first convention game.
Ever since I have known Lee I have been interested in his fandom of Dark Conspiracy, GDW’s setting of near future horror. He did a hack using Liminal, as he is a fan of the setting, but not the rules. The post-economic-crash setting is right up my street. We went up a street and ended up in a sinkhole. There were encounters with giant grubs and a weird bunker. We believed we were in a kind of Narnia, but with Abi Titmus standing in for Mr Tumnus in our imaginations. It was a game from the nineties after all.
5. FANZINE BOOKCLUB
The Book Club remains the highlight of my month, so it was good to get an extra in for the virtual GROGMEET weekend. It was a fanzine special looking at two British ‘zines from April 1986. Dead Elf by Andrew Fisher and Runestone by Bill Lucas and our very own Nick Edwards. We were joined by Nick (Quasits and Quasars) and Justin (Drune Kroll), editors from back in the day, who were able to support the discussion with some insider knowledge.
This was a period of the the wild west of FRP zine publishing in the UK, partly driven by cheaper off-set litho printing and the publicity from Imagine magazine’s coverage. The print runs for these zines was very small, most of them given away in exchange for other ‘zines. They were talking to each other: kicking against Games Workshop and TSR for most of the time and rehashing the ‘roll’ gamer and ‘role-gamer’ arguments.
A fascinating discussion and a real step back in time. We are going to do some more ‘zines in future meetings. Dagon is coming soon.
6. There has to be a fumble. We rolled on the table and … a cock-up with the world clock, due to British Summer Time, meant that the interview with Jon Cohen has been postponed. You can find the details here.
virtual GROGMEET is a highlight of the year. This year was no exception. Thanks to GMs who hosted games and the players who brought them to life. Play is the thing.
P.S. Team Tolkien won. This time.
Today marks two years since our gaming friend Mike Hobbs passed away. The Welsh Wizzard’s good humour, generous spirit and enthusiasm was infectious and much missed. We tried to continue his spirit by fund-raising in his memory. His friends contributed to buying games for school and youth groups to introduce a new generation to Mike’s hobby.
Cris and Jo Watkins from bonhomie games have done a tremendous job in turning an idea into reality. They have managed the fund and delivered games, lots of games, to the following game groups:
Caldicot Comprehensive School
The Zone Youth Club
Together Works Community Centre
Corpus Christi Catholic High School
Archbishop Rown Williams Primary School
Portskewett Youth Club
St Joseph’s School
ACCT Sheffield and Saint Michael’s Gaming Group
They include Primary and Secondary School game clubs, Youth Clubs, a Community Centre, and a charity. There are three of these organisations that support those with Additional Learning Needs including Autism and ADHD.
Each group had an opportunity to shape the package they received. Battletech to Ticket to Ride have been provided, each with a certificate of approval. Cris has kindly provided photographs of some of games being delivered and put into action.
This weekend is virtual GROGMEET, so please raise your dice cup to the memory of The Welsh Wizzard who is still spreading his magic.
Sitting at home, it always looked like a delightful mix of breakfasts, games, branded tee-shirts and more breakfasts. What’s not to like about that proposition?
Apart from the Tolkien games, it sounds ideal.
I hatched plan to organise a similar event, except playing Moorcock games, with fewer breakfasts and more bitter ennui. I discussed the idea with Orlanth Rex Steve Ray in the bar at UK Games Expo last year. We considered, “wouldn’t it be good to do it at the same time,” then it developed to, “wouldn’t it be good to find adjacent properties, so we can have water fights to settle the Moorcock vrs Tolkien debate after all?”
Steve transformed this small talk into reality by applying his organisational mojo. His Air-B&B-fu struck gold to find the perfect location, in South Kilworth, so the event could take place under the same roof.
We arrived in a magnificent three story building with a stone-floored kitchen that retained its ‘below stairs’ charm with service bells stuffed with tissue paper, presummably to prevent them blowing in the wind. As the excited propritier showed us around the various nooks and crannies, he asked, “You play games? Are you part of a group?”
Chris, who he had appointed leader, said, “well it’s more of a cult.”
THE END OF TIME
Friday afternoon, we played Greg Stafford and Charlie Krank’s Elric: Battle at the End of Time which was a revamp of the original Elric! game. It’s for four players, but we needed some consultation on the sidelines, and the guiding hand of the ultimate rules-lawyer Mark. He has a talent for grokking the most convoluted instructions. The game mechanics are simple, but there’s so many different aspects at play, described in an ambiguity that it took all of Mark’s mental facilities to coordinate.
It was a slow moving experience, however it was filled with atmosphere and was effective at recreating some of the climatic scenes from the novel Stormbringer. There’s a random element to the game too that can send it spinning in crazy directions.
Theleb K’aarna was recruited by Blythy to the side of law. He had the Runestaff, destroyed Hwamgaarl of Pan Tang, battled with Elric and the dragons in Melinboné, destroying the Young Kingdoms by tipping the balance away from chaos.
STARTER FOR TEN
It was too cold for a water fight and the hot tub was out of bounds. The battle between the Hobbits of the One Ring and the Eternal Champions will need to be resolved by quizzing. Twenty five questions about Lord of The Rings and and twenty five on the work of Moorcock. It was a hard fought battle with only three points between the teams. It was the Moorcock team what won it!
Lords of the DragAGON Isles
I have been wrestling with the difficulties of how to create a Moorcockian experience at the scale of The Eternal Champion. Most of the RPGs that have been developed for The Young Kingdoms tend to create characters within the world facing gritty fights and bizarre random situations. In the novels, there are a series of encounters at different scales with portentous high-stakes consequences for the characters and the world itself.
AGON is John Harper’s game with epic heroes in ancient Greece facing trails set by the gods. With a bit of tweaking, I put AGON in the multiverse. Divine favour came from the Dukes of Chaos and the Lords of Law. The Eternal Champions are on the Black Vessel, sailing the seas of fate, seeking to restore balance.
There was lots of fun creating aspects of the Eternal Champion, and the nemesis Al’zxx of Awain, The Serpent Lord, the emissary of Lucifer, sometimes known as Rasputin, and the scourge of the Welsh Republic.
He had to die.
Just before lunch, he did.
On the whole, it created some interesting dilemmas and situations, but AGON warns that it doesn’t really work with six people, and it was straining a bit at times.
ELVIS HAS LEFT THE BUILDING
In the afternoon, it was a Dungeon Crawl Classics version of the multiverse. Our characters were summoned to the court of the Lords of Chaos to recover an egg. Our quest took us to a multiverse museum with an odd-ball collection of artefacts from time and space. I was feeling a bit sleepy, but I’m pretty sure that Elvis managed to kick a robot to death. Yes, I’m pretty sure that happened.
It was the finale that was worth the price of admission alone. Each player had their own motivations to seize the egg. There was player verses player plots and counter plots with sneaky wizards, clerical blessing, picked-pockets and virtuous interventions. Ultimately it ended with the two rogues back in the city where the adventure began, as if nothing happened. Perfect.
After a colossal takeaway curry, the two teams swapped sides. The Tolkien Team went sailing on the seas of fate and Moorcockians went hurtling to the Shire.
Following the gaming, the chat went on, late into the night.
Early Sunday morning, it was time for Bookclub, our monthly chat about RPGs and RPG adjacent publications. This month it was Moorcock’s first Elric novel, and the last of the series, Stormbringer. Nihilistic? Tragic? Dramatic? Just a bit daft? There were a cross-section of opinions in a lively, fun debate. We were in the rafters, a temple of law, while the GROGSQUAD joined the Zoom of Role-Playing rambling.
It was a perfect ending to a fantastic weekend.
I attended the book launch of the extraordinary Dice Men, The Origin Story of Games Workshop with Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. I’m still recovering. It’s a MUST for all listeners of the GROGPOD.
“You’re the GROG man!” Ian Livingstone has a smile of recognition as he met me in a smart Sardinian inspired restaurant in Belgrave, Westminster. He’s here with Steve Jackson to launch the new book Dice Men, The Origin Story of Games Workshop. It tells the tale of how these two friends from Manchester created a global gaming phenomena from humble beginnings. There are ten other lucky people sitting around this long table, who supported this ambitious project created by crowd-funding publishers Unbound. At the highest pledge level it was possible to attend this launch party in the presence of these two legends of gaming history.
A chance to spend time with my childhood heroes, was too good to miss, but what to say? Where to start?
Everyone is curious about Ian’s recent knighthood, so he shared the story of going to Windsor Castle to receive the honour from Princess Anne, passing around his low-res photos from the day on his phone. There’s a promise of better ones that can be paid for from the official photographers. He looks justifiably proud standing in the colonnades of the castle holding his medal. The award is in recognition of his contribution to the gaming industry. He assures us that Princess Anne had a genuine interest in his achievements during the brief ceremony.
I am struck by how easy the interaction is between us all at the table. There’s a common ground between us, whether it’s sharing the stories of going excitedly into our local Games Workshop when we were young, or reading articles in White Dwarf, or being foxed by Steve Jackson’s infernal maze in Warlock of Firetop Mountain gamebook.
Scott went to the same college as me and he says he took over the war-game society in the year that I left and transformed it into an RPG society. An extraordinary coincidence and my life could have been very different if we had met 31 years ago, perhaps I’d have kept on playing through the nineties.
The common ground we share was created by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, almost by accident.
Back in the seventies, thanks to determination and a lucky break they were the ground-zero of British gaming culture. When their newsletter ‘The Owl and the Weasel’ reached Gary Gygax (to whom the book is dedicated) he made a business deal which gave the pair exclusive European distribution rights to Dungeons and Dragons. This was the foundation of everything that was to follow, propelling them from the back of a van to a globally recognised brand.
One of my fellow diners pointed out, we know the story as we are obsessive, but even for us who thought we knew everything, there’s much more revealed in Dice Men.
THE DICE MEN COMETH
The Vitelli Tonnato and Galletto al Forno was consumed, the conversation was flowing and the book appeared.
It’s a labour of love that took longer to develop than anticipated as it involved exploring the loft to find the archive of material to support the compelling story.
The first invoice for Just Games was recovered and is reproduced here, as are copious lost artefacts from the period including the original Robert Crumb inspired Games Workshop logo (drawn by Ian), facsimiles of The Owl and The Weasel newsletter, so called because game players need “the wisdom of an owl and the cunning of a weasel” (I always assumed it was due to Ian’s round owl-like glasses and Steve’s hair colour, but there you go) and many more generous reproductions of documents and memorabilia from the era.
My favourite chapter of the book is the American tour, when Ian and Steve headed to the States in search of burgeoning game companies that they signed up for distribution and exclusivity in the UK and Europe, including RuneQuest among others. The photographs and the accompanying commentary portrays the spirit of adventure they experienced as they travelled coast to coast, delivering cars and a race against time as they headed to Wisconsin in time for Gen Con. It’s Two-Lane Blacktop, with dice. They finally met Gary Gygax who gave them the big break in the first place, when they were at their most unkempt and unshaven, but their appearance did not shake his confidence in the pair. Later, TSR offered to merge with Games Workshop, to move into the UK market. They declined and lost the exclusivity of D&D distribution when TSR UK was formed. Ultimately, a very wise decision.
It provides the player handouts to illustrate the stories that will be very familiar, such as the Dalling Road staff baseball teams, the banning of ‘Killer’ in the Sunbeam Road offices and ‘the great flood’. This could have been a business book, charting the entrepreneurial skills and ambitions of a growing company and the brinkmanship of Brian Ansell, compelling them to invest more capital in miniatures; those stories are covered, but this is a personal memoir, an affectionate reflection of a time when creative people converged to make something wonderful.
Ian explains the challenge of creating the book was separating the chapters into the different themes while retaining an accurate chronology as events overlapped. The Owl and the Weasel evolved into White Dwarf, supporting their commercial ambitions, while at the same time creating a community of players who shared the spirit of the Games Workshop retail stores. The early Fighting Fantasy books were being developed at the same time as the retail operation was growing. A real hive of activity. There’s a great photograph of Ian composing pages of White Dwarf by hand using letraset on a light-box. The tee-shirt I’m wearing features the cover of White Dwarf 33, “it’s the first issue I bought.”
“You’re a relative new-comer then,” Ian says, as everyone begins to share their personal origin stories. I explain that it was Steve and his article in Starburst which described how role playing games worked so cogently, that I had to go and buy RuneQuest immediately. Similar articles appeared in Space Voyager and others. Games Workshop success has been down to their appeal beyond scIence fiction geeks and hobbyists to seek out and create new audiences, I said, “that article promising adventure if you were tired of reality changed my life.”
Jackson smiles and shrugs. “I don’t remember writing that at all.”
Homemade, blackberry gelato allo yoghurt is served and the pens come out for signing. I presented an illustration by Simon Perrins, a pastiche of the RuneQuest cover, featuring my friend Doc Cowie who wasn’t able to come, so gave me the opportunity to attend instead. “I recognise this,” Ian says as he writes the dedication, “I have the original Iain McCaig at home. I have all of the covers that he did for me.” Holding up a copy of City of Thieves, “you can see the origin of Darth Maul’s horns in the design of Zanzar Bone, can’t you?”
“I know which one gave me more nightmares,” Carl, one of the fellow diners quipped.
Other copies of the Fighting Fantasy series are signed, including a forty year old edition of Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Someone mentions the American Steve Jackson, “there were TWO Steve Jacksons!”
“There are many more than two,” Steve smiles, “But, you’re right, Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games wrote a book for us. It was very confusing as we needed to say “Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson presents” Steve Jackson.”
After a brief photo-call Ian declared that it was time to “get back to work” we looked shameful as we gathered our coats to head home.
He says that he does not anticipate ever retiring, there’s still so much to do.
Dice Men is the origin story, but it’s not reached the finale, quite yet.
Dice Men is available now from all booksellers – if they haven’t got it – order it! Thanks to Ian and Steve and Unbound for organising the event, it was incredible, the food was delicious. Thanks to attendees for great company. Special thanks to the generosity of GROGGIE of the year (and every year) Doc Cowie.
I know what I like in my wardrobe. Study the incredible PROGMEET illustration to win a prize.
This weekend is GROGMEET 2022. For some long forgotten reason it has a progressive rock theme. Some of the games have taken their influence from Prog Rock classics from Genesis to Gong.
The wonderful illustrator Simon Perrins was commissioned to produce this incredible image.
You can win a prize for listing the most references to prog, gaming and music that you can spot.
The winner with the highest verified list will be announced on 20th November 2022.
Closing date is 17th November 2022 (midnight).
This is the second part of our exploration of Scarred for Life, the fantastic series of books about growing up in the dark decades of the seventies and eighties. Gen X-rated popular culture shaped our imaginations and informed our gaming.
Content warning for this one as we quote directly from a couple of controversial games from the 80s.
I’ve had a go at putting chapters on this one. In case they don’t pull through, here is the menu:
00:00 INTRO: The incredible ghost voices that appeared on the free flexi-disc from The Unexplained magazine.
03:53 The GAMESMASTER’s Screen. Ste Brotherstone give us insight from the forthcoming volume of Scarred for Life. Phoenix Command, Alma Mater, The Unexplained: Mysteries of Mind, Space, & Time, The Price of Freedom, and 2000ad. I also mention the wonderful Save for Half podcast who did a recent episode on East Texas University.
57:30 Library Use. Judge Blythy joins me in the Room of Role-Playing rambling to look at Unexplained magazine. I make a mistake – it didn’t last for 115 issues, it was 157!
1:33:0 Advert. Frankenstein’s RPG podcast – I appeared on a recent episode about Magic/ PSIonics and Investigation in SF role-playing games.
1:46:Outro. The Book Club is on the first Sunday of every month at 09:30 GMT for 90 minutes. Owl Bear and The Wizard’s Staff convention is scheduled to take place on the weekend 2nd September. I will be supporting an online version of the event. Watch this space for more details.
In this episode, we finally draw the sword from the stone and examine a game that had an enormous impact on gaming in the 80s: King Arthur Pendragon.
David Larkins, the Pendragon line editor for Chaosium, joins us to tell us about the history of the game, how it works and the future developments.
Judge Blythy, our resident rules-lawyer, reviews the mechanics and we discuss how the game works conceptually.
We also have some closing time chatter about hot topics on our table top.