The GROGNARD Files

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

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

Download Episode

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: