Making the Icons Work for You

Modding the Icons

Tweaking a world is a lot easier (usually) than making one from scratch. With 13th Age one of the core setting elements are the Icons who I’ve spoken about before. Once I’d finished Session Zero, I set to work tweaking them to fit the campaign I thought I was going to run.

I won’t go into exhaustive detail here. I tried that last night and hooo boy was it dense and largely uninteresting to people who aren’t playing in the actual 13th Age campaign I’m running. So here’s a quick rundown of who the thirteen Big Factions in the Shadow of the Rat campaign are, with an emphasis on talking about why I’ve made the tweaks I have to serve the campaign I’m running and the characters who’ll be running rough shod over it.

The earlier thing I wrote served as the foundation for the rejig, obviously. As I read the 13th Age treatment of each Icon I asked myself the questions that would help me make them servants of my game. How would they interact with players? How will their agendas cause conflict for the players’ characters? How can I make them ambiguous so that interactions with them are less straightforward? How will the player character Icon relationships shape the story?

A Quick Reminder of the Players’ characters

Keeping the players’ characters’ chosen relationships at the forefront of what I’m doing makes it easier for me to make sure that I create situations players are interested in. I hope.

  • Grenn the Orc Rogue (Steve): Positive relationship with the Shadow Prince, “It’s Complicated” relationship with the Hierophant, Negative relationship with the Lich King.
  • John the Tiefling Sorcerer (Mark): Positive relationship with the Shadow Prince, “It’s Complicated” relationship with the Archmage, Negative relationship with the Diabolist and a One Unique Thing “I am the diabolist’s greatest mistake”.
  • Thomas the Human Cleric (John): Positive relationship with the Empress, “It’s Complicated” relationship with the Hierophant and the Lich King.
  • Turok the Dwarf Ranger (Clive): Positive relationship with the Empress, Negative relationship with the King Under the Mountain (2 dice), and One Unique THing “The only dwarf who left their people to live in the Empire.”

In theory I could ignore the Icons the players haven’t taken relationships with. However, story and conflict don’t just come from the factions the party have relationships with, but who those icons own opposition. The enemies of my frenemies are… actually I’m not sure but you take my point.

For example. two of the party have complicated Hierophant relationships so that means I can look at scenarios where the Crusader – who also has a complicated relationship with the Hierophant – is a player. The Crusader also opposes the Diabolist and kind-of supports the Empress so while nobody has a direct relationship with her (yet) it makes sense that she be a presence in the game. Plus the players contributed the idea of the Crusader embassy being an unexpectedly important presence in the city, which makes it even more likely she and her supporters will be major players.

The Imperial Court (More Or Less)

First Image

Empress, Archmage, Hierophant, Crusader

The human dominated Dragon Empire underpins the entire campaign. The game is set in one part of it – the city of New Port – and that’s where most of our world building is going to take place. But the larger Dragon Empire gives context to what happens in New Port, and being able to reference the forces that exist in the wider world makes the bit we’re actually playing in feel more real. Four Icons essentially help define the Dragon Empire, and I’m calling them the Imperial Court.

The Empress

The Empress rules the Dragon Empire, the greatest human kingdom ever known.

Every Empire has someone who sits on the throne and wears the big hat. The Empress is the icon that represents the authorities, but also the world that is safe and known. I knew she’d be a constant (if distant) presence since the heroes were agents of the Empire (albeit slightly dodgy ones). Most of the work I did on the Empress was actually about defining the Dragon Empire, because having some broad strokes on how that worked would be relevant to the game especially since the players had introduced a conspiracy fighting for independence from it.

I knew I wanted the authorities to be a little unstable, so I said that the current Empress was relatively new to the role. This also let me seed conflict between a new progressive leader and an entrenched traditional ideas of governance. I noted that while the Empress is reasonably forward-thinking, she’s also a political figure and that means she can’t always follow the course of action that she would like. The Empress – and thus the Dragon Empire – is just a little lower fantasy than might be suggested for the ruler of an Empire where knights ride metallic dragons.

I also made a note that one of the ways the Empress and the Empire would interact with the characters was through the complex Imperial Bureaucracy. I’ve already introduced the Imperial Ministry of Gongwranglers, Dunnikindivers, and Guttermancers who maintained a small “office” in the actual sewers and I plan to do a lot more of that kind of thing.

The Archmage

The Archmage is the premiere arcane spellcaster in the Dragon Empire. She preserves and defends humanity, and explores the outer reaches of deep and dangerous magics.

In 13th Age, generations of Archmages have woven powerful magical wards over the Dragon Empire that keep out all sorts of dangerous creatures, and encourage prosperity. These wards might not be entirely positive – they probably have a stifling effect on creativity and innovation because they are maintaining harmony.

Where there are wards there are people trying to take those wards down so they can unleash hell. Early on I threw out the idea that for twelve-and-a-half ages whenever the Archmage or their equivalent had encountered an evil they couldn’t deal with they did the magical equivalent of putting an upturned pint glass over it. The players got the point immediately.

One of the ways to present the Archmage is as a megalomaniac lunatic who does all kinds of ridiculous magical experiments and is basically juggling ticking time bombs. I decided to go with a slightly more positive interpretation of a paramount wizard with the best of intentions who is basically so busy patching the holes in a sinking ship she doesn’t have time to deal with the fact the deck is on fire and also there are deep ones with hammers knocking holes in the side of the boat.

The Hierophant

The Hierophant hears the voices of all the gods, but he heeds only those of the powers of light and mercy.

Canonically, the Priestess is one of the “new icons” of the 13th Age. I decided to keep that element. I flipped her to male because there’s something about the force of good, peace, light, and mercy being a lady that makes my eye twitch a bit. That’s my problem though.

I wanted to add a little bit of an edge so defined the Hierophant as someone, who hears the voices of all the gods but chooses to ignore the gods of wickedness and selfishness. That will probably come to nothing but I know canonically that one of the most obvious goodies in the setting spends a lot of time actively resisting the temptations of the forces of darkness.

Arguably, gods aren’t very interesting; its the religions they inspire and the faithful who follow them that are interesting. So I made a big deal of the Hierophant’s syncreistic efforts to unite the followers of all the gods of light, and those unaligned gods that aren’t actively malicious, into a single pantheon of goodness. I wanted to hint that he’s Up To Something, but looking at the fact the party have two “it’s complicated” relationship dice with him, they’ll probably do my job for me.

The Crusader

The Crusader is the armoured fist of the dark gods, turning their wrath against the demons that would unmake a creation her patrons would much rather see brought under their own dominion.

The Crusader isn’t really part of the Imperial Court, but thanks to some suggestions from the players when defining New Port, I decided to make her more ambiguous. She represents a faction committed to destroying the demonic invaders that threaten the whole of reality by any means necessary. One of the tools she uses is the favour of the Dark Gods who represent the worst of human nature, because their methods work.

Her followers are militaristic arseholes, but arseholes who also spend most of their time fighting demons and incidentally protecting villages from bandits. They just don’t balk at sacrificing one village to save two others, which makes them villains. Espionage tales often play with themes of expediency vs idealism, or doing bad things for good reasons, and she’s an obvious place where I can let that theme take centre stage.

She’s clearly got a larger agenda – probably world domination – but she’s taking it one step at a time. I also know thanks to the players that her followers have a surprisingly prominent position in New Port.

The Middle Road

Third Image

King Under the Mountain, Queen of Stars, Warlord, High Druid

This gang of Icons are mostly ambiguous in nature – they’re not necessarily goodies or baddies in player terms. They’re also all outside the Dragon Empire to one degree or another. It’s probably no coincidence that they are clearly representing non-human agendas as well.

The King Under the Mountain

The King Under the Mountain is the ruler of the dwarvern people and claims everything beneath the earth as his domain.

The Dwarf King in 13th Age bundles up all the stereotypes of dwarves and puts a hat on them. I already knew from Clive that there were no other dwarvern citizens of the Dragon Empire so I decided to play that up.

The King Under the Mountain is technically allied to the Empress, but in practice is more interested in the security of his own nation and there’s the hanging threat that if things get too bad on the surface the dwarves will just withdraw into their mountain fastnesses and lock the doors behind them.

The history of the dwarves is that they used to live far underground but were forced to move to the surface by Terrors in the Deep, and that for many of them their ultimate goal is to return to the deeps. They also protect people from things – the horrors of the Underworld and the ongoing invasion of the Warlord (more about him in a moment).

I positioned dwarves as merchants and mercenaries, comparatively technologically advanced, masters of the use of magical runes. I’d done something similar with the dwarves in my 5th edition D&D game so it was all pretty straightforward.

Finally, I decided that while the Dwarf Lord wouldn’t be an active antagonist (unless things go very strange) he’d also not be an ally of the party. There’s something a bit authoritarian about him, and that might end up creating some interesting conflicts for the players if it comes into play.

The Queen of Stars

The immortal Queen of Stars represents the united spirit of a divided people.

I’m not a big fan of elves. I shall say no more on that beyond mentioning that the ttrpg Spire has gone some way towards mollifying that dislike in recent years.

There’s an obvious contrast between the dwarves and the elves, and I decided to play that up. I’ve not detailed a lot of it because nobody in the party is an elf or elf-adjacent but I think the historical origin of the elves is the Overworld – the bright and shiny counterpart to the Underworld that the dwarves came from. They’re literally otherworldly, but rather than being from Fairyland they’re from the Moon. Kind of. They either fell or sauntered vaguely downwards and now they’re part of the same world as everyone else and can’t or won’t go home.

With a nod to Spire, elf skin-colours range from pitch black through ash grey to ivory white and that some of them glow or have stars moving beneath their skin. I’ll keep the high elf/wood elf/dark elf split but make it one of tradition rather than race, but there’s some quality of the elves means that anyone who can see them can instinctively tell what tradition they belong to.

Having made that decision, I made the Queen of Stars an impossible-to-predict, mysterious Icon who embodies the spirit of the elves, wears masks and over-the-top costumes, and is an immortal mistress of divination and enchantment magic who takes an impossibly long view of everything but is probably benign. And almost certainly not Yog Sothoth because minimal tentacles.

Also unlike the dwarves there’s a lot more than just elves in her Court of Stars. Medusa, aranea, driders, pixies, sprites, satyrs and the like all hang out with her and maybe it’ll turn out that they’re all really just elves with different outfits on. I dunno how much of this will come out in play, but New Port isn’t that far from the Queen’s wood, but my gut feeling is that most of this “elves are weird” stuff will be for my amusement and the odd peculiar encounter rather than anything front-and-centre so I won’t spend too much time on it.

The Warlord

The Warlord leads the numberless hosts of the goblin nations, and for the first time since the fall of the Wizard King has turned his attention to the Dragon Empire.

I switched the Orc Lord to the Warlord, and basically recast the entire Icon and his followers as the ghaal’dar from Eberron. Instead of an obvious team-evil invading army of savage orcs, the Warlord leads an alliance of goblins and any others I fancy who are here to claim a Dragon Empire they believe is rightfully theirs. In the histories, the first Warlord killed the Lich King, and was then betrayed in some fashion by some or all of the Empress, Archmage, the King Under the Mountain, and the Queen of Stars.

Invasions give you someone to fight, sure, but if they’re only things to fight you’re missing out on so much. So instead of ravening savages, the invading force are sophisticated and relatively civilised. This means they can send diplomats and spies to places their armies can’t reach, and they can fill the roll of an antagonistic neighbouring nation that threatens the stability of the Dragon Empire.

I could have done that with orcs, but I already knew I had an orc player character and that cemented my initial feelings about making the invaders goblins. I had a different role in mind for orcs anyway.

The High Druid

The High Druid is the champion of the resurgent Wild, and his coming threatens to shake the Empire to its very roots.

I made the High Druid an orc, and I ripped off Eberron again by making the orcs an elder race equivalent in some ways to the elves and dwarves. Then I played up the legitimate concerns of the druidic community about the way the Dragon Empire and the Archmage in particular have yoked the natural world to the will of humanity in a deeply unnatural way.

Rebalancing the scales before everything catches fire and falls into the sea probably means destroying a couple of cities, tearing down the powerful magical wards that keep all sorts of elder evils at bay, and replacing all the nice gardens and farms with trees. But in the long run if you don’t do that what happens instead will be worse. So say the druids, anyway.

Unlike the King Under the Mountain and the Queen of Stars however the High Druid is not an orc-rights fellow. He’s the figurehead of the Nature First movement, and most of the orcs the party meets will be fellow Imperial citizens.

Given the proximity of the High Druid’s place of power to New Port, the druidic faction is likely to play a significant role in the campaign. And by that I mean I definitely want to use him, his druids, and a bunch of shapechanging animal terrorists to make life difficult for the players.

The (Mostly) Black Hats (Kind Of)

Fourth Image

Shadow Prince, Lich King, Diabolist

As I’ve said before I’m never very interested in obvious, uncontentious evil. There are three icons who are quite dubious, but one of the things I wanted to do was find ways to make them ambiguous. To give players reasons they might want to cooperate with them against their own better instincts. While still leaving them space to be a bit villaionous.

The Shadow Prince

The Shadow Prince is a trickster whose exploits are more about shaping the politics of the world through the careful revelation of secrets than they are about redistributing its wealth. Although, that said, they still put a lot of effort into redistributing its wealth.

The Prince of Shadows in standard 13th Age is a bit of a cipher. A (possibly) romantic but slightly annoying trickster-thief figure who maybe runs all the thieves’ guilds. With the power to steal anything, any criminal anywhere might be one of their buddies.

Running a campaign with a theme of espionage, I knew the Prince was going to be significant. Two of the party took positive relationship dice with them, and that meant their faction would be relevant to any given plot as a supporter about a quarter of the time (maybe? I can’t be arsed doing the maths so I’m just going to double down on quarter).

For this campaign, the Shadow Prince has their finger in many pies. They’re involved with thieves, sure, but where their real interest lies is in information. They run independent espionage operations, and sell information to the highest bidder. They may also be selling information to people specifically to push an agenda of their own but nobody knows what that is.

I kind of envision the Shadow Prince as being Tzeentch from Warhammer but without the over-the-top daemon world-destroying agendas. Or the mutants. Or the blue-and-pink horrors or the flamethrowers or … actually not much like Tzeentch. But also like.

The Lich King

The Lich king is the lord of the undead, the fallen tyrant who intends to conquer the Dragon Empire and restore his ancient kingdom.

The actual 13th Age Lich King is a bit Vecna, complete with missing eye and hand. He often seems to be presented as a somewhat vaudevillian cackling evil villain. That’s fair enough, and I certainly don’t want to make him sympathetic. But I also want him to be a bit more interesting than two-dimensional evil, not least because that makes it easier to see how the party relationships will work.

So this Lich King is a plotter and a schemer, who actually has some grounds for being pissed off given he was pretty much the rightful ruler of the Dragon Empire before a bunch of traitors stabbed him in the back. He’s the master of necromancy, and he’s kind of subsumed the power of the gods of the dead which will bring him into conflict (?) with John’s medium/Necroscope character. Steve also has a relationship die with him, which means he’ll turn up involved in plots at least as often as the Shadow Prince and the Empress.

The immediate “point of agreement” with the players will be that the Lich King wants to rule the Empire, so he’ll oppose anyone who wants to stop him doing that. This means that whenever the party is opposing the High Druid, the Warlord, and the demons they’ll be on the same side (technically) as the lord of the undead.

Given John’s themes and ghosts and wotnot, I’ll also be foregrounding the idea that Imperial citizens need to propitiate the Lich King, or he can legitimately extend his power to take over cemetaries and graveyards. Having an uneasy relationship with the sinister master of necromancy will be fun!

The Diabolist

The Diabolist wields magic perhaps best left unwielded, and binds the forces of chaos and uncreation to her whim.

The 13th Age Diabolist could be a villain or she could be more ambiguous. I know she’s going to be a marked presence in the campaign thanks to Mark’s One Unique Thing (the diabolist’s greatest mistake), and my interest in doing some stuff with demons. I rejigged her a little, stealing some of the conceptual ground from the Prince of Shadows in the process.

In this campaign, the Diabolist uses demons, but she explicitly does so because what she’s really about is power and freedom. her power, Her freedom. She wants to be powerful for… reasons… and she won’t let anyone tell her what she can and can’t do. She encourages other people to ignore rules and do what they really want to. I have a vague feeling she probably reads Ayn Rand from time to time and has a good chuckle.

She’s the personification of selfishness in the campaign, and she’ll alternate between being an antagonist and an uneasy ally if the party are prepared to accept her double-edged boons. She’ll be acting through cultists and agents, but she will probably make at least one personal appearance to talk to Mark about… stuff.

The Dragons

Second Image

Great Gold Wyrm, the Three

The last two icons are both dragons. I have an ambivalent relationship with the alignment-and-colour-coded dragons. There’s way too many of them for a start – who needs ten different types of dragon? One would arguably be sufficient, but I’ll grant you that in d20 fantasy games the five-dragons-with-five-breath-types is cool.

By which I mean the five chromatics are a lot more interesting than the five metallics and you could run a perfectly servicable campaign with just them.

The Great Gold Wyrm

The Great Gold Wyrm is the world’s protector. Although his physical body seals the gap that prevents the Abyss from erupting into the world, his dreams and agents still move through the world helping those who will fight and die for what is right.

I nearly cut the Great Gold Wyrm for being dull – he feels a bit one-note compared to some of the other Icons – but I was talked out of it. In the end I kept him, but decided to focus on the fact he’s trapped in the Abyss, and  that his sacrifice is holding back the demons and stopping everything getting much, much worse.

I’ve also leavened him with quite a large helping of Eberron mysticism which I will not say too much about – he was very nearly replaced with the couatl but that was just too obvious. I did not that there are no other gold dragons anywhere in the world, however. There may have been some once, but there are none now. For some reason which may not come up in play but makes me happy to think about.

The way he will make an appearance will be through his followers, who will mostly be paladins and will be tired all the time because being a hero as your day job sucks. I want at least one recurrent character who does the right thing all the time, and to whom the players feel the need to justify why they sometimes have to do the wrong thing for the greater good or what have you.

(If I were starting again, I might well remove the Great Gold Wyrm and replace him with the Shining Silver Wyrm, the Great Gold Wyrm’s best mate who spends a lot of time telling people what they think the GGW would have done and shaming people for not being better after the sacrifice Goldie made for them. It’d make for a very different type of paladin for a start, although I don’t think the Path of Passive Aggression will catch on.)

The Three

The Three were among the first dragons to walk the world. Once they were the Five, but now their power is greatly reduced. On the other hand, they are still ancient dragons and smaller creatures underestimate them at their peril.

Together the Three are a bit of a wild card, and they’re one of the Icons I like the most. They’re also all over the history of the default setting as they dwindle from Five to Three. The White is dead at the hands of the Lich King, and the Green is the prisoner of the Queen of Stars. So they have some specific other icons they automatically oppose, one of whom is also the enemy of the players’ characters.

The Blue is incidentally a powerful sorceress who rules one of the seven cities as Imperial Governor – a city that incidentally the ancestors of a bunch of the people of New Port used to live in before it was overrun by monsters. The Black and the Red are cool, but it’s the Blue who will representing their weird trine in this game.

I did nearly make one change – I was very tempted to have the Red dead at the hands of the Lich King, and rework the White as the engine of unstoppable destruction mostly because I think white dragons get a bad deal. Then i would make the Black the prisoner of the Queen of Stars (potentially giving the Queen a slightly different feel as well), and the Green the subtle infiltrator of the Three.

In the end I decided not to make the change, because it needed a bit more work than I wanted to do, and because I was sold on a particular interpretation of White Dragons that I wanted to play about with. Although… I dunno. I have until they first make an actual appearance to make that decision and I do like white dragons and green dragons.

Bloody colour coded dragons, making me think about stuff. It’s not right.

Epilogue

This actually started off as a “short” article about world building but as I wittered on about icebergs, and Chekov, and Marie Kondo, it got longer and longer and it felt less like an introduction to the Icon tweaking and more like an entirely seperate bit of writing. So I cut it off and will tidy it up a bit and you’ve now got that to look forward to.

Half An Hour To Write; A Prose Poem or Something

Right now, everything I do is taking about half an hour. Everything.

Its like trying to drive somewhere in Shadowrun Seattle.

Player: “We go the Barrens”

GM: “It takes about half an hour.”

Or

Player: “We leave Fort Lewis and go to Everett and see if our target is there.”

GM: “It takes about half an hour.”

This isn’t every significant task, you understand. Earlier today it took me half an hour to go for a piss. Sure it involved two flights of stairs but even so. I think what added the extra twenty-five minutes was sitting halfway up the first (or second depending which way you’re going) flight of stairs and checking Facebook to see if anything interesting had happened before going back to my desk.

As to the significant tasks, it’s all gone a bit Xeno’s Paradox. Every task is breaking down into a series of sub-tasks each of which takes about half an hour regardless of how long it ought to take.

Some of those subtasks are things like writing three sentences. Writing thirty words took me half an hour earlier. They weren’t even good words, about half of them were copy-pasted from a different paragraph somewhere else. I spent about a minute on each sentence, and then five minutes staring at them, and then twenty minutes or so trying to find the cotton buds so I could wiggle at the itch in my ear like a crazy person.

Occasionally I need to check something on the internet and then whoops! I’m on the internet and appear to have just spent twenty-five minutes on Twitter scrolling down a thread of people typing angry abuse at someone for something. Half an hour gone and I can candidly say it has not enriched my life.

Now I want a cuppa. No point starting anything until the water has boiled and also I’ve just somehow managed to spill coffee granules everywhere better clean them up and now whoops I’ve smacked myself in the eye with the hoover and I’ve still got the jar of coffee in my hand for some reason I really should have put it down before I got the hoover but I forgot and now its ten minutes later and I can’t remember where I put the jar of coffee and this wouldn’t even have been funny if I was watching Rowan Atkinson do it and there goes another half hour better have a coffee to cheer myself up and now I need a piss.

Don’t even get me started on how easy it is right now to sit down at your computer and then suddenly decide right now is the precise best time to sort out the plastic bags from yesterday’s ASDA delivery because I can see them in my peripheral vision and they could be a bit neater.

Right now, I should be prepping for a meeting. Two meetings, in fact.

Instead I’m writing this.

It’s taken me about half an hour.

I guess what I’m trying to say is “Happy Mental Health Awareness Week everyone, and I don’t think I have ever been more aware of my mental health and it’s still only Monday!”

Interstellar Post

I wrote a short monologue for the Ragged Scratch Podcast: Isolation Sessions and yesterday it went live. Read by a voice actor called Daniel Leadbitter, it’s an adaptation of one of the short pieces I wrote in 2018 as pat of the November writing kick that started me on the lonely road towards having a Patreon.

You can listen to it here. It’s probably the first actual script I wrote from scratch for someone else to record, and I’m reasonably pleased with how it turns out even though there’s not much actually happening in it.

Challenge of the Eternals

Too Much Time On My Hands

Things are grim all over.

As part of Operation:Stay Sane I put this together. It’s a set of Top Trumps cards depicting the eternalseternals of the Empire game setting.

If I’ve worked this right, it should be downloadable: Challenge of the Eternals

I wrote the words and did all the heavy lifting, with the expert assistance of Graeme Jamieson for the numbers. The award-winning John Haynes did me some extra pictures.

It’s not exactly a deathless piece of game design. Some of the numbers are pretty random. It’s not been rigorously playtested. It’s mostly just a bit of fun for people to have a laugh with over however long their isolation is.

The Hayaak Problem

Not every eternal made it – I knew I wanted an equal number of cards from each of the six realms but inconveniently there were eight Summer eternals. Everyone else was either at seven, or at six but I could immediately see who I’d add to make them up to seven. So I told Hayaakthere was a rare quornbeastie loose in the woods and he went scampering off to try and chase it down.

In retrospect what I should have done is removed Barien and framed the game as a gift from the eternal who likes Challenges. Hindsight is 2020.

The Extra Cards

There’s two “extra” cards in there. I am not going to say anything further about either of them. So there you go.

The Categories

When I started designing the game, I knew I wanted six categories – one broadly associated with each of the six realms. The eternals from those realms would generally have higher ratings in those categories.

I also knew I 100% wanted to include Fear Factor, as that was a stand out category from the Top Trumps I most enjoyed as a kid – the old Horror Top Trumps. Probably explains why I turned out the way I did.

The other consideration was that I wanted the numbers and categories to broadly mean something – to reflect my opinions of the game and the eternals we made for it. This is partly because one of the other things I remembered from Top Trumps was actually talking about the cards with my mates. I can’t do the equivalent of “did you know that an African Swallow is faster than a European Swallow?” with fictional characters but I hoped it would prompt at least some degree of “The Lictors are less charming than Siakha” amusement.

In the end I settled on these six categories:

  • Charm: How chatty the eternal is. This is the Night category, and it was nearly “Passion” but in the end I felt that was too specific.
  • Drama: Generally how much trouble does the eternal cause for the Empire with a side order of “How likely would this eternal be to appear in a soap opera”? This is the Summer category. I amused myself by messing with the number spread a little such that picking the high drama numbers slightly increases the chances of a tie.
  • Might: How tasty is this eternal in a fight. This is the Spring category more-or-less. It’s also so people can talk about whether Meraud of Sadogua would win if it came down to a duel.
  • Reason: This one is a little vaguer in that it is both “how clever is this eternal” and “how reasonable is this eternal”. The Day realm comes out on top here.
  • Schemes: The Autumn category covers “how convoluted are these eternals plans” with a side order of “how likely is this eternal to actually have a plan”.
  • Fear Factor: How scary is this eternal. This is the Winter category, and I decided to shake it up and list it from 1-100. This let me mess around with the numbers a bit – there’s a few fear factors that are in-jokes. It’s also the tie-breaker category unless you’re the Thrice-cursed Court or the eternals realms’ favourite bickering lovers.

I really wanted to include an homage to the old Top Trumps and have either a “height” or a “weight” category but when I looked at it it was pretty obvious that the Autumn Eternals and Leviathan would win all the time. Also I have no idea how much a city weighs.

Optional Rules

With seven cards a page, and space for eight cards, I decided to add in some “optional rules” that are mostly about referencing the source material again. I’d hoped to come up with one variant per Imperial nation (Battle Royale was original Imperial Orc Battle Royale for example) but I ran out of time, space, and inspiration. I don’t doubt anyone actually playing this thing can come up with their own fun if they need to shake it up a bit.

The last variant I couldn’t quite fit on was the Summer Drama variant in which if you lead with either Eleonaris or Jaheris, and the “trick” you collect contains the other one of the pair, you immediately win a moral victory and everyone has to refer to you as Ruler of the Summer Realm from that point onwards or all the numbers on their cards count as zero.

Instead I saved it for the blog. Aren’t you pleased I did?

 

 

There’s Just Something About A Nice Regional Accent

More Braaaaains

Zomboat

There’s four of them; they’re not massively complex even for sitcom characters; and they’re ever so slightly colour coded for your convenience (blue, yellow, red, and green). I’m trying to work out if the Gauntlet reference is intentional or not. Probably just a coincidence.

Following on from yesterday’s zombie exercise, we spent this evening playing a bit of Left 4 Dead 2 which was incredibly cheap on Steam. I’d not really played it before despite it having been out for ten years or so. It was quite entertaining in a “whoops I’ve been shot in the head by my own team again” kind of way but obviously more so in a “killin’ zombies with your mates” kind of a way.

The chainsaw is fun. I cannot aim any of the guns except the shotgun for love or money. We’ll probably go back and play some more of it tomorrow evening.

Hanging out with nerds is important given the depressing statistics about men our ages. I digress

That’s not really the subject of tonight’s post however. Although there are some very basic similarities. I’d initially planned to do Cockneys vs Zombies but at the last minute on a whim I changed my mind.

Instead I watched the first three episodes of new ITV 2 (!) sitcom Zomboat so you don’t have to (although you can if you like – it’s on ITV Hub if you’re bored). In my defence it seemed like a good idea at the time, and in actuality I didn’t resent the hour or so I wasted on it.

Premise

Leah Brotherhead

Kat plays computer games and has watched a lot of zombie movies, which means she’s the ideal person to take charge in the case of a zombie apocalypse. Or something. Also she doesn’t like the Big Bang Theory so she’s okay in my book.

The (comic) story involves two sisters – one a computer-game pop-culture geek the other not – and two mates on a stag do. There’s a zombie apocalypse in Birmingham. The plan is to escape the city via a longboat and head to London because apparently the canal goes to London.

I don’t recognise the cast, although a quick internet poke about suggests Cara Theobold is Jo – more worried about her recent break-up than the zombies. The geeky sister is Kat, played by Leah Brotherhead. She reminded me of a less extreme Meg from Dead Pixels (you might enjoy that as well if you haven’t seen it). She takes charge based on her experience playing a zombie horror MMORPG.

The two lads – Ryan McKen and Hamza Jeetooa – are entertaining in their way. Ryan is Amar – a “gym bunny” who is dense but well meaning and can’t keep his top on, while Hamza is Sunny – a bit of a passive-aggressive cynical whinger.

The characters are paper thin, obviously. But this is a zombie apocalypse story and a sitcom so I can forgive them that. It gets a bonus star – just the one – for being a sitcom in which two of the four leads are non-men and the other two are non-white, I guess.

The Show

Zombie Horde

The zombie horde that follows the narrowboat. At least two of them have specific connections to the main cast (a one-night stand, and a disgruntled rail employee). None of the other zombie hordes seen to far are any larger than this. I did say it was a bit low budget.

It’s okay so far if I’m honest and I’m not just saying that because I’m a sucker for certain regional accents.

In spite of myself I am enjoying the way that they don’t even try not to make terrible decisions. I guess that’s the sitcom element right there even when it stretches the bounds of credulity as in episode three where Jo waits barely five minutes before abandoning the boat to go look for a shower in the zombie infested hotel.

There’s slightly self-conscious zombie culture references throughout which amuse me and make me think I might be at least in part the target audience. It’s not subtle, mind.

Nor is it big budget; I could imagine most of the budget went on the narrow boat that our heroes are planning to ride to London. Birmingham seems oddly deserted for a start. The zombie horde is about half a dozen people, who are obviously following the narrow boat because it moves very slowly. It’s played for laughs – it’s no Shaun of the Dead but it’s better than a not insignificant proportion of the ZomPocalypse stuff I’ve seen over the last couple of years.

It’s self conscious but I’ll forgive it that even if it does have a bit where some other survivors just head off on their own to look for a car because escaping zombified Birmingham in a narrow boat is ridiculous.

Plus it has its moments. I laughed quietly at the bit where the sisters decide to go and get kitted out in leather because its a zombie apocalypse and that’s what you have to do no matter how impractical it all is.

Conclusion

I’m easily pleased, and I wasn’t looking for anything full of social commentary and challenging dark humour. It’s a bit slapstick in places even. You might enjoy it. Or not. I have no idea what your tastes are like.

I’ll definitely catch the rest of the episodes. secure in the knowledge it is almost certainly not getting a second series.

Halloween7

 

Self Indulgent Rubbish About Gazelles

Overly Wordy Set-Up

I tried something different for my walk today.
Actually before I go any further – I’m a fat bastard and my exercise regime largely consists of walking and climbing up and down the four flights of stairs between the filtered water on the ground floor and the attic garret that I occupy on the third floor. When I walk, I listen to Zombies, Run.
(It’s technically a running app, but I use it for keeping me company while walking. It is fun in 30-minute chunks like a radio drama but with added sweating and dodging cars).
Also this is technically a Facebook post but it became pretty clear it was way too long so I thought fuckit, this is why we have the WordPresses and if I put this on the Patreon it will no-doubt cost me Patronisers. Plus next time I go back to Patreon I will need to get my finger out and write the last of the pieces I owe which I am finding very hard to complete due to it being about player sense of entitlement. It’d be easy to write, but not easy to write in a way that doesn’t have the word “fucking” every other sentence. I digress.
Anyway. Walking. I’m meant to be keeping more active as part of the ongoing plan to not die. Unfortunately, I now live half way up a hill in Penrith, a town made up entirely of hills as near as I can tell. The first three-quarters of every outside walk is fine as it is downhill or level. The last quarter is hell as it is uphill and, as mentioned previously, I am a fat bastard.

New Plans and the Bloodthirsty Gazelle

Wallpaper

It’s nice enough wallpaper but its not a patch on the scenic streets or the need to stay vaguely alert so you don’t get run down by a taxi on the narrow pavements.

After checking out google maps and realising that my initial crazy plan of heading uphill so that I could come downhill at the end and this make everything 25% less painful was… well even basic maths would suggest this was a flawed strategy. And everywhere I go I’m either going to have to climb a hill at the start or at the end and I’m not in the mood for hills unless there is an errand in the middle that makes the hill wortwhile.

So instead I got back onto the deeply misleadingly named “gazelle” which stands halfway up the house.
A gazelle is a massive construction of metal and plastic which is a walking machine. You stand on the skis and you walk. It’s pretty straightforward. In the case of this particular gazelle, you walk while staring at a wall and hoping you don’t accidentally smack the radiator with your naked elbow. They you have a shower. Then you feel good about exercising or something.
I’ve had some problems in the past with the gazelle. The very first time I tried it out – stupidly in my bare feet – it tried to kill me. It soon became clear that like an evil piece of clothes-washing-machinery from a Stephen King short story it requires regular blood sacrifices before it will let me use it. I’ve definitely broken a toe, and twisted an ankle trying to use it. Shut up. I have.
It’s okay once you get started. It’s just really, really boring.
The other problem (aside from its attempts to kill me) is that I struggle to combine it with the usual Zombies, Run walking regime which is why I stopped using it and went back to plan B (not exercising unless we were out of bread).
I like the way Zombies, Run is put together normally – in episodic chunks with space between to listen to music or to think or just look at the scenery. Penrith has some nice scenery and I like listening to music so that’s been working out well – apart from the way the awareness of that fucking hill sucks all the joy out of the last ten minutes of the walk.
Recently I’ve been using the time between story segments to plan stuff and think about games and whotnot rather than listen to music. Things like how I can say “players are entitled little shits sometimes” without actually saying that, and also how to spin that into four thousand words. Saying it another six-hundred-and-sixty-six and a bit times is not going to cut it.

The Tedium of the Short Distance Walker

Unfortunately, that doesn’t work as well on the gazelle. The scenery – a wall – is not very engaging. I’ve tried turning my head and looking at the doors on the landing, but they quickly lost their appeal. I’ve peeked through them. I know what’s in there. I can’t see it form the gazelle.
I’ve tried convincing little-black-cat Truffle to keep me company but I found her unblinking stare too judgemental and made her go away. Plus she would insist on sitting on the stairs behind me. I could feel her judging me but unless I turned round to check I was never sure if she was actually still there or whether I was chatting to the air like a crazy person.
I tried shutting my eyes and almost immediately fell off the gazelle because apparently my sense of balance when hanging in suspended plastic skiis is dependent on me being able to see what I’m doing. Also it didn’t work to keep me engaged.
So in the end I stopped using the gazelle. It still tried to kill me once a month or so, usually late at night when I was trying to creep quietly to the bathroom, past the in-laws bedroom door, without waking them, because I am considerate and everything.

I Hate Being Bored and I Can Punch Suns

Today though – having abandoned my plan to use a hill to ruin the first 25% of the walk and thus the entire rest of the walk rather than just the last 25% – I hit on the idea of balancing my tablet on top of some boxes and watching a video.
To be fair, I came to the idea of watching videos on a tablet late in life. Intellectually I knew that you could do this, and that my tablet was basically a tiny flat computer. Realistically, I felt the idea of doing anything other than reading on it was probably witchcraft and letting the side down. And I can’t read while walking on the gazelle – the distraction would just create an opening with which it could make another attempt to suck on my innocent blood and bone marrow.
But I’ve slowly been converted to the idea of treating the tablet like a tiny portable computer, and since I’ve recently joined the early twenty-first century in watching videos on the YouTubes –
– wait have you heard of the YouTubes? There’s all these videos online, literally hundreds of them, and some of them are not awful! I’ve been watching some about games and stuff, and occasionally short horror movies. Its ace!
– I decided to employ all my maths and engineering prowess to prop the tablet up on top of some boxes and watch a Shut Up and Sit Down review. The nice thing was that I could tailor the video in question to how long I wanted to exercise for. In theory, it’s not that much different to listening to Zombies, Run. But in practice it should be more engaging.
Obviously, I need to pick the video carefully. Narrative causality will ensure that if I watch anything dubious one of the in-laws will wander past just as some fat bastard called Electronic Arts a cunt. Or, worse, if I listen to anything musical I’ll just start singing along (which is maybe the real reason I don’t want to walk listening to music while around people who may be judging me silently).
Thankfully, Shut Up and Sit Down (who I had recommended to me by a friend yesterday) are very family friendly. They also look like grown ups which is nice. And more importantly for purposes of this experiment their reviews tend to be between twenty minutes and half an hour long.
This is ideal – because it means that I can’t use stopping to find a new video as an excuse to stop exercising but can also set myself an achievable goal that I know is going to come to and end in twenty-five minutes or whatever.

Some Thoughts About Scythe

The video I picked was about Scythe, which my boss claims is his favourite game. Let’s see if I can embed it here.

(EDIT TO ADD: Okay so that worked. It’s not very aesthetically pleasing but it worked. I shall put a gold star on my weekly “gained a new skill” chart. Even though the skill was “click a button and paste something”. Its still a skill. Shut up).

The review makes some very good points that helped be crystallise my own feelings about it. I don’t dislike the game, but I’m not in love with it the way some people are. I feel bad saying that out loud, given I know several people of my acquaintance really enjoy it.

I’m also terrible at it which doesn’t help, obviously.

The game is beautifully designed – the way you move the little cubes around to reveal advantages and reduce costs is inspired. The visuals are cool. The pieces are cool. The theme is cool.

Look At That Lovely Board

Look at that art. It’s lovely. Genuinely lovely and evocative. How can I not love the game as much as I love the moody Steampunk walkers juxtaposed with disinterested farmers? What’s wrong with me!

But it leaves me cold inside. I don’t get into it the same way I get into Spirit Island (my current favourite game) or Architects of the West Kingdom (my next favourite game right now). I don’t find myself roleplaying it – its engaging enough but only in the way something like Power Grid engages me. I know in my heart right at the get-go that I am not going to win it, and so instead amuse myself setting myself smaller goals to achieve.

I guess its because I find it hard to get into the fiction of the game – which is not the case with the games I enjoy. Which is ridiculous right? The whole thing is dripping in cool visuals. It just somehow doesn’t feel as if the game is really about stomping around with giant mechs and a bear – even though it so patently is. I find it hard to put it into words.

My problem with the game, which I identified during the recent Team Building and Seasonal Review session in Preston, is that it feels like there is one too many things for me to keep track of. Or possible two.

I forgot there was a special points scoring objective (which is understandable as its on a card on the far side of the board) but I also forgot you scored points for territory (which is unforgivable). So I lost, like a machine designed for not winning.

Which is a shame because I really want to like Scythe. I should like it. Mechs and bears and alt-universe steampunk Eastern Europe!

But its also a plodding game which can move glacially slow, which then transforms into a game where suddenly it seems everyone else has (metaphorically) put go-faster stripes and jump-boots on their mechs and recruited the population of a small country to harvest oil for them. At the same time it sometimes feels like every decision is weighted with too much potential for failure and I hate that. I don’t mind choices being significant but I hate it when a single mistake – rather than a cascade of poor choices – can completely fuck your game for you.

Give me a good worker placement game any day, basically.

Result

Scythe aside, the outcome was that the experiment worked! Twenty-five minutes of almost constant walking on the hateful devil machine, enough to get a bit of a sweat on. I was engaged throughout, and didn’t really notice the time passing, which is ideal.

My next plan is to do this every day this week and see where it goes from there – assuming I don’t run out of good twenty-five to thirty minute videos.

I mean I know the NHS recommends thirty-five to forty-five minutes of exercise a day but the stairs count as at least ten minutes exercise a day in my opinion.

And the best part about this if I can make it work is that I don’t feel I need to reward myself with a Snickers after I’ve done my walk because instead I get to have a warm shower, so I’m winning not once but twice.

At this rate I might even attempt a trip out to the swimming baths in the new year – although combining “standing in a pool bobbing gently” with “watching YouTube videos” may prove to be a challenge.

The League Explorers Found Footage Journal Excerpts

In early 2016 Matt Heath – at the time Highborn egregore –  ran a player event called “House of Leaves”. It was thematically survival-horror with plenty of traumagowning thrown in. It centred around a kind of Evil Brigadoon – a Highborn chapterhouse that could only be accessed at specific times and was under a Dreadful Curse.

I was lucky enough to be invited to do a little writing for it, even though I couldn’t actually get there to do any actual real crewing.

Over the course of several months I put together a bunch of props for the event. The one I’m most proud of was the 80,606 word Lovecraftian-inspired tome of Winter Lore which is still on the field at Anvil as far as I know despite some (very) lazy efforts to steal it back from the players via plot. It’s mostly just me “filking” other peoples’ short stories, chuntering on about what Winter magic means, teasing players with powerful Winter rituals, and providing some plot exposition for the event and its (many) ghosts and curses. One day I’d like to do tomes for the other five realms.

In addition to the main event, I also wrote a number of other props designed to add a little random depth. A book of terrible poetry containing obscure clues; some accounts of past-life visions; an easter-egg involving some Highborn predictions based on the prophecy of the popes that have a backstory all their own but fell afoul of a different team doing something peripherally similar. I might talk more about that later with reference to the problems of having multiple plot teams working in the same spaces.

I also got to write some of the possessions. All in all it was a great experience. I’ve done it a few times since – I really enjoy adding a bit of value to other peoples’ events especially as I can do it without putting trousers from the comfort of my own armchair.

AudioLogs

While they didn’t invent the plot-exposition-via-audio-log concept, System Shock 2 is the game that first made me love them as a way to fill a game with story while not interrupting the terror or violence. I spent many happy minutes hiding in tiny rooms with my back to a wall reading and listening while I steeled my nerves for a bit more “running through horrible corridors with my hands over my head screaming.”

One of the pieces I wrote for House of Leaves that I especially enjoyed was the document whose only name was League Explorers Found Footage Journal. I loved the bits of journals that you find lying around computer games that give you snippets of context or bits of story – the one that always sticks in my mind is the scattered tale of the fleeing lovers in System Shock 2. Given the opportunity, I asked Matt Heath if I could write a series of pages from a journal detailing the plight of some League investigators who entered the Chapterhouse of the Frozen Oak during one of its earlier visits to the mortal realm and met a Grim Fate.

Over the next couple of days I’ll be uploading the text, one page at a time. I hope you’ll find it enjoyable to read. Its not especially long.

The conceit should be pretty obvious – a group of League explorers out to make a profit break into the Chapterhouse and become trapped. One of them keeps a journal, some pages of which were found scattered around the Chapterhouse in various places. The protagonist and his team meet Dark Fates – just like you will, Gentle Reader, if you do not solve the Mystery of the Frozen Oak and escape the Terrible Place! And so on. There were a couple of clues to some of the dangers of the chapterhouse in there as well of course – just so it didn’t become too self indulgent.

That said – it starts mid-sentence which is as clear a case of self-indulgence as ending a piece of text mid-

This introductory note was first published on my Patreon on April 8th.

In Which I Am Very Sad

You might want to skip this one. It’s for me, rather than you. I just don’t want to lose it in the slurry pit that is Facebook.


Gemini

This was Gemini “helping” me write stuff. I think you can just make out Muppet on the floor below.

Just packing away some last few bits and bobs and suddenly hit by the awareness of something we aren’t taking with us. When we left Sunderland we brought two cats with us. Gemini turned up when Sam and I moved in together officially for the first time and was with us for quite a while. She was small, and we got her because the people who had her decided they didn’t want a cat.

She was nervy, although not as nervy a Truffle. She was crotchety, especially as she got older. She didn’t have a huge amount of time for me but she would come and sit on my knee with Muppet and we’d joke about cat kneepads. She did *not* like being put in a box and ISTR it took all Ben’s supernatural martial arts abilities to get her into the cat carrier to bring her down. I don’t think she ever forgave us.

She died just at the start of Y1E4 Empire. I dashed home when Sam rang me in tears that she was not well and we sat up with her all night and then that was that. She’s buried in the wilderness that is the back garden. I remember having to go downtown and buy a spade in tears. I miss her, very much. Muppet missed her too. She followed her everywhere and when she was gone it was heartbreaking.
It’s a maudlin note to be going to bed on I guess. It’s quite taken away my enthusiasm for last minute packing and tidying. So I wrote this. It’s made me sad that days can go by when I don’t remember to miss her. When we get settled in I think its time to finally print off one or two of the photos I still have of her and out them somewhere within easy reach.
MuppetAndGemini

Muppet and Gemini on the window of the place we briefly lived in when we came to Hatfield. None of us liked that place, the cats least of all. But they liked sleeping together in the windows when it was sunny.