The GROGNARD Files

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

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?

During the introduction for GROGPOD 30, I mention New Voyager, the short-lived UK magazine that was: “Today’s magazine for those who can’t wait for tomorrow.”

Thanks to The Empire Strikes Back and other block-busters such as The Wrath of Kahn, as well as the NASA Space Shuttle launch, the interest in science fiction and all-things space was very much front and centre in 1982.

Around this point, Games Workshop were reaching out to a wider audience through genre magazines. In this issue, Steve Jackson provides an overview of the current state of the art of RPGs with a capsule review of the games available. There’s a couple on there that I’m not familiar with, such as Heroes of Olympus, Odysseus, and Universe. Fortunately, in pride of place is D&D, ‘rising star’ RuneQuest and Traveller (all distributed by Games Workshop, handy eh?). If you are interested in finding out more, you can send off for information, or enjoy a White Dwarf subscription a whole one pound cheaper than the normal price.

There’s a fairly dry listing of the episodes from the first series of Blake’s 7, which I suppose would have been indispensable given that the details were probably not available anywhere else.

The reason I was fascinated by this issue at the time was the contribution from my hero Mat Irvine who gave a report on the Shuttle programme. It might have been miserable in early-eighties Bolton, but we had a Golden Age of space travel to look forward to in the future. I can’t wait.

If you would like to see more, this is now available in the GROGLOCKER: a page of resources for Patreon supporters. See the post issued today to unlock.

Look, it’s those weepy things, covered in carpet.
I loved the article about building an airfix AT-AT
£49.95 … no thanks, I’ve seen a better offer:

For the past 4 years I’ve had a crack at the RPGGaDay challenge and by the 10th day I’ve usually burned out. In previous versions there has been a series of very specific questions that invariably got to to a question that I had no opinion about.

This year there has been a more ‘word association’ approach that I’ve indicated in caps. Although some of them lent themselves to a potential portentous statement, I’ve tried to avoid it by being as personal as I can. For example, the word “VAST” lends itself to platitudes like “the human imagination is vast and I intend to explore it through RPGs”.

I’ve done it every day in August on twitter, and for those of you who don’t use it, here are my entries:

1. Four years ago, the FIRST podcast was published featuring the first RPG we’d played: RuneQuest #rpgaday2019#RPGfirsthttps://thegrognardfiles.com/2015/08/07/the-grognard-files-rpg-episode-1-runequest/…

2.The greatest thrill of playing one-off convention RPG games is that every experience for every player around the table is completely UNIQUE. Never to be repeated. #rpgaday

3. It’s been great to ENGAGE with the GROGSQUAD for White Dwarf Book Club – sharing memories and our attitudes to it now #RPGaDay2019#rpgaday

4. I really love seeing other people’s gaming stuff. It’s one of my favourite aspects of social media: Gamers get to SHARE their stuff. #RPGaDay2019

5. The last, regular SPACE adventure I participated in was The Traveller Adventure 4 years ago. I’ve enjoyed our occasional Star Trek Adventures with @Asako_Soh but I need more SPACE in my life. #RPGaDay19#RPGaDay#RPGaDay2019

6. ANCIENT settings are my personal favourites. I’ve always wanted to be Jason thanks to @Ray_Harryhausen RPGs such as RUNEQUEST have let me realise the dream (albeit with no left leg) #RPGaDay19#rpgaday

7. One of my all-time favourite characters was Azir Voon who had an homunculus FAMILIAR (I *did* say that RPGs are just a means of putting me in Ray Harryhausen films) #rpgaday #RPGaDay2019

Avir Voon and friend

8. I have a load of GM Screens to OBSCURE my secrets from the players, but I’ve never found the perfect one … perhaps I should treat myself to one made by @cognitivemerch (here’s @OrlanthR with his at GROGMEET18) #RPGaDay2019#rpgaday

9. We’ve had a CRITICAL comment about the GROGZINE content “it’s just not nostalgic enough”. Excellent. It’s finally a *real* 80s ‘zine with a readers’ letters page pointing out how things have gone downhill. #RPGaDay2019 #rpgaday

10. Big run of convention games coming up. Going to FOCUS on creating some characters while on holiday. #RPGaDay2019#rpgaday#OBaWS@24hr_rpg

11. I still get twitchy at the point when players need to EXAMINE the clues. I dropped the handout bomb for Two-Headed Serpent. I need to learn GM patience. #RPGaDay2019#rpgaday

12. FRIENDSHIP – a small ad in White Dwarf in 1983 brought the 3 of us together and we’re still playing and creating great new friendships along the way! @sjamb7@Edinthesand#RPGaDay2019#RPGaDay

13. I’m on holiday. New places are filled with MYSTERY, waiting to be unlocked; what’s the story behind this Deep One carnival masque? What’s lurking in the murky green Venetian lagoon? #RPGaDay2019 #RPGaDay

14. There’s YouTube, Game Store Demos and clubs to GUIDE you into RPGs now. Back in the day it was articles in @STARBURST_MAG that showed us the light! #RPGaDay2019#RPGaDay#rpgaday

15. The DOOR is the GMs’ best pacing friend. Stick a door in it and it’s either an encounter, a brake or an accelerator (see also, a box) #RPGaDay2019#RPGaDay (here’s a Roman Door – what would you do with it? A Magic Mouth for riddles? An impenetrable seal? A teleport?

16. My DREAM? One day, I’ll all have all the time in the world to retire to a house of gaming. A place lined with shelfies, with many comfortable rooms filled with friends, drink, music and games. Welcome to DunGroggin’ #RPGaDay2019#rpgaday

17. ONE on one play happened all the time when we couldn’t get a group together. Recently @sjamb7 played in a ‘link up’ adventure for the Two Headed Serpent it seemed both awkward & dangerous! @PelgranePress are supporting Solo Ops with Gumshoe; what about you? #RPGaDay2019#rpgaday

18. I once thought a gaming session once a month was PLENTY, now I get withdrawal if there isn’t a game once a week. How much is too much? #RPGaDay2019 #rpgaday

19. When I want to make things SCARY for players, I think of the things that made me scared as a kid. They’re all wrapped up in one book: A Pictorial History of Horror by Denis Gifford (Conrad Veidt in THE MAN WHO LAUGHS … shudder…) #RPGaDay2019 #rpgaday

20. One of my favourite and most enduring characters from bitd was Marcus Mendusor, a NOBLE Gladiator. You can read about him in the first GROGZINE. Submissions needed for GROGZINE20 too. #RPGaDay2019 #rpgaday

21. On the site of The Boar’s Head in Bolton, there was a pub for students known as Varsity, but @sjamb7 named it The VAST Empty Space-we were often the only people in it-at the top of the stairs in Nipper’s Corner, making plans “let’s write a RPG memoir” #RPGaDay2019

22. LOST at conventions over the past 3 years: D8 purple translucent D4 lime green D4 solid black D20 Red Notebook dry wipe pen Return in exchange for 10,000 xp #RPGaDay2019 #rpgaday

23. I suppose, with all this ‘health and safety gone mad’ and the woke ‘player agency’, it’s frowned upon to SURPRISE your players by killing them all. #RPGaDay2019 #rpgaday From Grimtooth’s traps:

24. Battlecars was fuel for my imagination in the eighties. @Edinthesand and I added RPG elements, with scenarios and reoccurring characters, such as, The Bean and his opponent, Rooster Rotten and his souped up TRIUMPH T-100. #RPGaDay2019#rpgaday

25. A RPG session can survive any CALAMITY apart from one: A forgotten character sheet I made me and @sjamb7 two hours late for an all day D&D session because I had to go home for my character. Anything else can be improvised, but you need your character, right?#RPGaDay2019#rpgaday

26. I never thought that I’d abandon my notebook of scrawl that I take everywhere, so that when an IDEA strikes, I can catch it. I’ve gone digital by using EverNote, where I can keep clippings and scrawl in one place. #RPGaDay2019 #rpgaday

27. I’m really enjoying running the Pulp Cthulhu campaign and emulating a pulp serial to create SUSPENSE with a cliff-hanger at the end of every session. #RPGaDay2019 #rpgaday

28. I LOVE creating my characters for RPGs, so why do I find creating pre-gens for convention games such a chore? #RPGaDay2019#RPGaDay

29. When it comes to Gygaxian naturalism I’m on the fence. Should Monsters EVOLVE with a ‘realistic’ logic, or be completely fantastical? #RPGaDay2019 #RPGaDay

30. “Crew Members Required” It’s 4 years since we made CONNECTION with the online, Wednesday, fortnightly group. @oilpainting71@rumleech@BenBgalvin@Edinthesand@sjamb7@DailyDwarf and Hal #RPGaDay2019#rpgaday

31. This is the first time that I’ve completed the RPGaDay Challenge – I hope it isn’t the last!

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INTRO: This time we are looking at Blake’s 7 and its influence on our gaming.

GROGGLEBOX: Eddy joins us in a noisy Port Street Beer House in Manchester to discuss ‘Project Avalon’

ACTUAL PLAY: Thanks to Andrew Cousins of lending me his copy of the rules to play. Blythy as Avon, Doc Con Cowie as Blake, Andrew Cousins as Vila, The Welsh Wizard Michael Hobbs as Jenner, and Mark Kitching as Cally.

FIRST, LAST and EVERYTHING: Guy Milner of Burn After Running blog.

THE GM SCREEN: Just how much of a fan is Blythy?

OUTRO: News about the GROGZINE 20