The pen is mightier than the sword

I hear a lot of people talking implicitly or explicitly about making their combat sequences like a really great movie. People are increasingly describing camera angles and SFX. But roleplaying is people talking to each other, using words. Which is, you know, more like a book than a movie.

So anyways, as I like to ponder how combat in games might be made cooler, I’m going to spend a little time looking at what’s cool about combat sequences in books. Starting with Joe Abercrombie, who for my money is one of the finest combat describers out there. Take a look at this little sequence from “Best Served Cold”:

“‘Fucking Talins,’ mouthed Shivers under his breath, the ashes of self-pity in his throat suddenly flaring up hot and bloody. It gnawed at him to come this low.Bastards had no use for his boots, just wanted to make themselves feel big. But it’d be a fool’s fight four against one, and with no weapon handy. A fool’s choice to get killed for some old leather, however cold it was.

He crouched down, muttering as he started to pull his boots off . Then his knee caught Red Nose right in his fruits and doubled him over with a breathy sigh. Surprised himself as much as he did them. Maybe going barefoot was more’n his pride would stretch to. He smashed Rat Face on the chin, grabbed him by the front of his coat and rammed him back into one of his mates, then sent them sprawling over together, yelping like cats in a rainstorm.

Shivers dodged the bald bastard’s stick as it came down and shrugged it off his shoulder. The man came stumbling past, off balance, mouth wide open. Shivers planted a punch right into the point of his hanging chin and snapped his head up, then hooked his legs away with one boot, sent him squawking onto his back and followed him down. Shivers’ fist crunched into his face – two, three, four times, and made a right mess of it, spattering blood up to the arm of Shivers’ dirty coat.”

There’s several things in here that are worth noticing. First, there’s absolutely no trading of blows. It’s all totally one-sided. Shivers is winning, so the action focuses on him kicking ass. A lot of games just don’t let that happen – even mooks get a roll to hit and the GM lamely describes them swinging and missing. The closest we get here is Shivers dodging the bald man.

Which brings me to the second point: it’s all from Shivers’ perspective. We hear how he sees the world and what he does. The bald man doesn’t swing his stick at him, Shivers dodges it.

The other thing I like about this sequence is the sheer visceral descriptiveness of it. Clearly there’s limited application of this for RPGs, because how much flowery language are you really going to use, but even so I could see applying a bit more brutal immediacy to my combat description.

Finally, and this is important, it’s really quick. The fight is all but over in one and a half paragraphs. Yet it doesn’t suffer for that, it feels like a real fight. Abercrombie does do longer fight sequences, but it’s striking how even really major fights can often be dealt with in a page or two. Yet many rpg systems grind out over many minutes if not hours.

I may look at some more authors at some point. Please feel free to drop a comment if you have an author you’d like to recommend for really awesome combat sequences.

Designer Diary: When the Dark Is Gone – Concept

If you remember my last Designer Diary Post I set myself two challenges:

Goal number one: create a prep-less game which is emotionally charged, with full immersion and where people are completely invested in their characters.

Goal number two: design a game with no need for a mechanism to resolve conflicts either in or out of character.

I decided that both these goals hung on the right sort of game premise.  So I took an old idea I had been playing with for years and revamped it.

I started with my favourite childhood books.  I loved Narnia, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, Five Children and It by E. Nesbitt and the Box of Delights by John Mansfield.  All involved young children from mundane worlds finding magical people, lands and items and having the most amazing adventures.

But what happened next?

What happens when the dark is gone?

How do you go from ruling as a Queen in Narnia to wartime rations and maths homework?

I imagined a situation where a group of children (the players) enjoyed magical adventures in a mythical land and then understandably failed to readjust to “normal” life.  All the children almost entirely repressed those memories and ended up self-destructing somehow.  All of them ended up in a Group Therapy session together, trying to recover their memories, deal with their psychological disorders and heal themselves and their relationships.

I am a huge believer in strong story scaffolding for prep-less games.  Indeed it is vital and WTDIG is no exception. Story scaffolding happens in two stages firstly the players agree their characters, their relationships (including how they have betrayed and hurt each other) and their psychological problems which have brought them to therapy.  Secondly the players decide on a number of agreed details about the magical land.  These details are the only agreed “true facts” of the game.  Both the character details and magical land details are there to give the players inspiration during the session for creating their repressed memories as they go.

The aim of the game is for the players to resolve their psychological problems and relationships using the memories of the magical land as a tool to help them.  The aim of the game is NOT to write wonderful stories about the magical land (although that may be a happy by-product).

How does this fulfil my goals?

Firstly the session is obviously and sharply focussed on their characters and their feelings. This is a game where creating emotionally charged conversations is the only thing happening in session. In case you didn’t know I run games mostly to find those interesting conversations.

Secondly the setting is a Therapy session.  Verbal conflict is encouraged and mediated by the Therapist (standing in for a GM but a very different role as I’ll explain below), it is resolved in the same way that people resolve real world conflicts in therapy. By talking them out.

Sadly we don’t get to roll dice in arguments with our real life partners 🙁   (Hmmm… hang on a minute?)

If the players disagree about what happened in the magical land…well here is the really clever bit.  They just disagree.  Memory is fallible.  The only truth that matter is your truth and how that helps your healing journey. The players talk through their mismatched memories and use the fact they are mismatched to create more story and more interesting emotional interaction (there was a wonderful example of this in the play test which indeed resulted in a better story and more satisfying experience for the players involved).

There are other advantages to the therapy session conceit in this style of game:

1. awkward silences (which occur more often in prep-less games where people can go dry easily) are perfectly normal for a therapy session and nicely amp up the atmosphere.
2. the Therapist role is a fascinating and easy way to help draw out the story if the players are having trouble.  Rather than acting as a GM and dictating plot etc.  the role of the Therapist is purely to reflect back at the players encouraging them to create everything.  The Therapist asks questions (e.g. Lucy can you tell me how you feel about what Edmund just said?) and ensures that the spotlight is evenly distributed amongst the group. For this reason I think of the role as Game Facilitator rather than Game Master.

Right that was a much longer post.

Next time… results from the Alpha Play Test are in!

[Don’t forget to pick up a free copy of the game from here if you haven’t already.]

Choose your own adventurer

A long time ago (for verily I am a long way behind on my podcasts), Happy Jack’s were discussing the idea of creating pregenerated characters for one-offs but providing a list of disadvantages to choose from for each character. You get a pre-genned character but you can give it a bit of customisation. This got me thinking – why even stop there? You can give each character options for powers, skills, whatever. You could even give them options for backgrounds. Choose between a rival who is trying to kill you, a secret you can never speak of, or a long-lost sibling believed dead. The GM could then hand you an index card with more detail about your chosen option. It would mean the GM couldn’t rely on any individual background detail coming up, but it gives you a bit more ownership over your character. And the unused backgrounds could easily be saved for the next one-off, so you aren’t wasting too much effort.

One-offs can very easily be just railroaded experiences, you’re handed a character and away you go. I’ve got nothing against that – but this seems to be a really simple way to replicate some of the fun of character gen without sucking up so much time that you no longer have time to play the game.

Since drafting this article, I gave the idea a try as part of a one-off Dogs In the Vineyard game I ran for a con. Dogs traditionally lets you gen your own characters, but given that I didn’t have a lot of time, I decided to just create the characters in advance. But I didn’t want people to be stuck with whatever I gave them so each character had two alternate sets of traits, which I chose to illustrate possible backgrounds for those characters. (For example one of the characters could either be the guy who grew up in the big bad city and pulled himself up by his bootstraps, or the guy whose parents expected too much of him and he rebelled and went off to do something different from what they wanted.)

It worked pretty well, and I’d definitely do it again. It hardly added any time to my prep, and equally it added almost no time to the game compared to just handing out fixed characters.

Designer Diary: When the Dark is Gone.

For some weeks I have been writing a new game called “When the Dark is Gone”. It is an ambitious and unconventional approach to gaming (if I do say so myself) but I *am* standing on the shoulders of giants in writing it.

WTDIG is my response to games such as Fiasco, Durance, The Trouble with Rose and others. These are all very good prep-less and GM-less games. They have some huge benefits over a more traditional style of role-playing and the biggest is that in my busy adult life I have less time to prep games. These games offer me the chance to role-play on short notice when I haven’t have time to prep.


I also find the GM-less style both challenging and intriguing. Once you have overcome the shock of shared creation, there are many benefits and the stories that emerge are often more interesting due to the greater creativity resource. I have enjoyed them all a great deal, but in all I have found I am missing something.

What am I missing?…a good cry.

What I mean is that whilst these games have been fun and entertaining stories were told – none of them touched me emotionally. There was little to no character investment and indeed this investment is actively discouraged in most cases.

First I thought that emotional role-playing wasn’t possible in a prep-less setting. Perhaps genuinely touching games, games which can make you cry, can only happen with prep.

Well – I love a challenge 🙂

Goal number one: create a prep-less game which is emotionally charged, with full immersion and where people are completely invested in their characters.

But that wasn’t enough for me. I’d been watching with interest how people were designing ways of determining Out Of Character conflicts or assigning elements of story control to different people at different times. But I was looking for a fully immersive character experience; any pause to make an OOC comment (even discussing the direction of a scene) would break what I was looking for.

So, how do you resolve conflicting views about where the story goes in a game where no-one breaks character?…The secret…you don’t.

Goal number two: design a game where there is no need for a mechanism to resolve conflicts either in or out of character.

Stay tuned for my solution…

[The beta version of the game is released here but I’ll have some more Designer Diaries going up to document my design process in the coming weeks. There will be lots more play testing and refining happening before I release the final version.

If you want to play test it drop me a line here i’d love to hear from you.]


Welcome to Black Armada

Black Armada is a website about roleplaying and board gaming run by Rabalias and Frax. Between us we have over 50 years’ experience of playing and GMing. That means we really like it, and we really like talking about it too.

You’ll find gaming tips, discussion articles, reviews and free games and game modules here, together with a significant quantity of random game-related bibble. We welcome comment and discussion so please feel free to contribute.

You can find Rabalias and Frax on Google Plus far too often.

Johari’s window

Ok, apologies in advance to management experts, because I am about to abuse a well-loved management metaphor until it is hardly recognisable anymore.

Johari’s window is a neat metaphor for learning and feedback. Picture a window divided into four quadrants. The top-left quadrant is things that I know about me, that you also know – public knowledge about me. The bottom left is stuff  I know about myself that you don’t know – my secrets, things I could reveal to you in future. The top right quadrant covers information about me that you know but that I am unaware of – this is important for management theory because it’s the space in which feedback can happen. The bottom right isn’t seen as especially important for management theory and it isn’t important for this post either. It’s the domain of things about me that nobody knows. Maybe there some great insight that can be gleaned there, but if there is, I (rather appropriately) don’t know what it is.

Image by Brent O'Connor

Incidentally, I have no idea who Johari is either. Whatever. [Edit: Googling around, because I just *had* to know, I see it’s actually called “A Johari Window”, so probably Johari is some kind of acronym and not a person at all. I shall persist in imagining I never discovered this.]

So, what does all this have to do with gaming? The answer is that you can use it for character generation. When you create your character, draw a window and write stuff in each quandrant.

The  bottom-left and top-right corners are for unresolved questions about your character. Who was that masked man? Who killed your father? What is the meaning of your birthmark? Why can’t you remember anything from the night of the 21st, and what happened on that night? Are you going to save humanity, or destroy it? But which quadrant you put each question in tells you whether this is a Dark Secret type of question – one you’re handing to the GM to answer, which might have an answer that you don’t like (top right quadrant), or one you’re going to answer yourself, at a dramatically appropriate time (bottom left quadrant). I suggest that by using Johari’s window, we can signal to the GM what questions are for her to answer, and which questions we want to keep for ourselves. Maybe you could even put some questions in the bottom right – these would be open to anyone to try and answer.

The top-left corner of the window has a use, too. Put things in there that are known at the start of the game. (Known to you as players, that is – maybe not to your characters.) By putting stuff in there you’re saying to the GM “this stuff is off limits”. If I say that my character is the son of a noble jedi knight, and put that in the top left corner, then the GM should not reveal partway in that the knight in question is actually Darth Vader. That would have been a cool plotline, but by putting my heritage in the top left I’m telling the GM to stay away from it. Break the top-left window pane at your peril.

The Trouble with Rose (a walkthrough)

The Trouble with Rose is a GMless, prepless, indie roleplaying game by Todd Zircher. It is in the style of a parlour game and falls in a similar category as Fiasco and Durance as games which divide the control of the narratives between all the players.

I first found it via the Story Games Forum and found the idea and Shakesperian flavour very hard to resist.  As I said, it is a similar style game to Fiasco but without the explicit car crash atmosphere, and so is better suited to my tastes.

The premise is short and sweet.  There is a person called Rose, they are in trouble.  You are playing their friends and family and your job is to build up a story about Rose; why s/he/it is in trouble and what happens next.   The simplicity of the scenario means it is easily adaptable to different genres and styles (there are a large number of playsets supporting the basic system). Rose could be a Fairy Princess, an AI deep in the Net, a schoolgirl, a pirate ship or as Todd suggests, Plutonium Rose, a rock star on the run from his groupies and the Mob.


The system is fairly simple, once a scenario has been agreed the players choose a character each, writing down six character attributes, 2 of which are in some way negative.  Some of our attributes were “own’s most of MadeUpShire” and the servant girl’s “total belief in the class system” but you might want to go for something simpler like “crack shot” or “very agile”. You then randomly choose 5 dominoes.  Each domino has 2 sides with 2 numbers on it (blank – 6), you take it in turns to direct a scene with your character in and choose a domino to represent the character attributes you will be displaying in the scene.  Blanks are wildcards and automatic failures, a double blank is played in the last round and always means that character will be removed completely from the action e.g. death.   You go round the table directing scenes 5 times. Lastly everyone draws a playing card which represents your character’s hidden agenda.

Things that worked well

The dominoes provided a good amount of story scaffolding and we made good use of a reflection period after each directed scene to tie up loose ends, discuss where the story was going and evaluate our progress.  Because of this there weren’t too many awkward moments where people go dry and the flow of the narrative fails.


Things that worked less well

We all felt a little pressured to bring in large amounts of other characters and NPCs into each scene.  This was to ensure we were giving each other enough to do.  However this meant we occasionally tied the plot in knots and strained the story. In future I would make more use of cut scenes, short flashbacks and internal monologues to flesh out characters and individual relationships, rather than making sure each person is talking in each scene.

Things we did differently

In the original game there is a means to judge each other’s role-playing prowess and award points on how well you brought your character attributes into the scene.  The person with the most points got to narrate the Epilogue. We agreed at the start that we didn’t feel this added anything to the game and that there were better ways to encourage and reward the same behaviour.  We ditched this aspect and I felt that was the right decision.

Secondly, whilst the game was GMless I feel (in all these types of game) that someone must take mental responsibility for managing the game and making sure things happen.  I made sure we had dominoes and copies of the system.  I guided everyone through character generation and actively facilitated the session, providing suggesting and prompts and encouraging others to do the same.  I’ll write more on managing GMless games later though – that is a whole topic on its own.


You may be wondering who our Rose was…she was the Scarlet Primrose, rakish hero to the French Aristocracy having rescued many of them from the Guillotine in the years after the French Revolution.  Half our characters were her family who believed her to be a ditzy dilletante, the other half were from her network of undercover contacts – much amusement and drama ensued when her two worlds collided.

I really enjoyed this game, it was great fun and we created a story which was engaging and interesting.  I still love the idea of entirely prepless games and GMless games and I think the Trouble with Rose is more the style of GMless game I want to play.  Best of all it has inspired me to write my own version of a GMless game.  So a big thank you and thumbs up to Todd Z.

Oh, I didn’t mention the best bit…it is free…go here to get your copy.

Qwirkle (Mindware)

Rating: ***

Type: Strategy

# Players: 2-4

Recommended # Players: 3-4

Time to play: Up to 1 hour

Summary: Qwirkle is a spatial strategy game. Players take turns to try and make rows and columns of tiles that either match colours or match symbols. It’s sort of like Scrabble but without any vocabulary requirements or pesky triple word scores. This is its strength: it is also its weakness. Qwirkle is incredibly easy to learn and master, and quick to play. As such it is well-suited to families and casual gamers. The dedicated strategy gamer may become frustrated by the limited strategic options and strong role of luck.

Gameplay: Players draw six tiles from a bag, and take turns to place them on the table. Tiles must be placed to form a continuous row or column, though existing tiles on the table can be incorporated. No row or column may contain tiles that do not match on colour or symbol, and no row or column may contain tiles that match on both colour and symbol. Since there are six colours and six symbols it follows that you can only ever make a column or row that is at most six long, and you are often prevented from doing this by other nearby tiles.

A point is scored for each tile in your row or column (including those which were already on the table) and, like Scrabble, it is possible to score more points by placing tiles to simultaneously create multiple rows/columns. Play frequently revolves around cunningly placing your tiles to maximise this effect. At the same time, completing a row or column of six tiles (called a Qwirkle) earns you a six-point bonus. This bonus is just enough that it is nearly always a good idea to go for a Qwirkle if you can, and nearly always a good idea not to put a five-tile row in play if you can help it.

Qwirkle is intensely easy to learn due to its simplicity. This makes it very attractive for families and casual gamers who may not want something too demanding. While it initially seems equally simple to play and, indeed, chiefly a game of luck, there are in fact some moderately complex strategies that can be deployed to maximise point-scoring if you are so inclined. Because of the six-point Qwirkle bonus mentioned earlier, the game remains competitive even when players of quite disaparate skill levels play together.

Nevertheless the strategies available are quite limited and if you’re looking for strategic depth you should probably look elsewhere. The game can get fairly repetitive but retains interest despite that if, like me, you are obsessive about maximising your score.

Components: 108 chunky black tiles with brightly coloured symbols on, with a large drawstring canvas bag. The tiles are designed to stand up – so you can hide your “hand” from your fellow players without needing a special rack as in Scrabble. One complaint is that the red and orange symbols (and to a much lesser extent, the green and blue symbols) are quite similar in hue, so unless you have good light this can be confusing. The instructions are clear, simple and well laid out.

New Year resolutions

Play at least ten games (roleplaying or board) that I have never played before.

Play a full roleplaying session, not just a one to one, entirely over Skype (or G Chat)

Read at least ten sci fi and/or fantasy authors I’ve never read before, including at least five women.

Write a complete roleplaying system.

Complete my murder mystery for Undying King games.

I reckon if I finish all that lot I have a right to be pretty pleased with myself. Let’s see if I can manage it!

Mwahahaha! (White Wolf)

Rating: * *

Type: Resource building/card game

#Players: 2-5

Recommended # players: 3+

Play time: 3-4 hours

Summary: Mwahahaha! puts the players in the role of super-villains attempting to build a secret weapon with which to threaten the world. The players collect four kinds of resource to construct their weapon, and to deploy various supporting cards, including minions which can be used to try and steal resources from the other super-villains. The players must progress through four stages, starting with threatening a city and ending in successfully threatening the world (the game’s victory condition). As the game’s name and concept suggests, the various super-villain characters, secret weapons and support cards are “humorous”. In fact, getting into the wacky spirit of the game is a minimum requirement to enjoy this game, which lacks much in the way of interesting gameplay.

Gameplay: The objective of Mwahahaha! is to collect enough resource tokens, from four types, to activate a secret weapon and thereby intimidate increasingly large sections of the world into submission.

Each player chooses a super-villain and receives a small number of secret weapons to choose from. These vary only in the number and type of resources favoured – and, of course, the variety of amusing theme played to – something I’ll come back to later. Players are then dealt resource cards which can be exchanged for resource tokens. Resource tokens can be used to buy empire cards (permanently improving the level of resources you can collect), or minion cards (used to steal other player’s resources and empire cards, and to defend against same), or to activate your secret weapon.

The chief point of gameplay is to build up the correct number and type of resources, which in turn is dependent on the resource cards you draw. You can sidestep the need to draw the right resources by collecting empire cards or by attacking other super-villains with your minions – or by trading with other players. Finally, there are also dirty trick cards which act as one-shot effects to enhance your actions or disrupt others.

Eventually someone will get enough resources to threaten their first city. This is resolved with the roll of some (usually a lot of) dice, with a pretty high probability that the city will cave in and offer you tribute in the form of more resources. Once you’ve done that you need to put still more resources into your secret weapon, so you can threaten a state, then a country, and finally the world. As you get closer to threatening the world, chances are the other players will try to dog-pile you with their minions and dirty trick cards, so you’ll need to put more time into defending yourself.

Strategically, Mwahahaha! is pretty lacklustre. There are plenty of choices to make but none of them really seem to make much difference to the fundamentals of the game, which is grinding out those resources. Maybe we at Black Armada were missing something, but this felt tedious and long-winded, with the slow build-up from threatening a city to threatening the world only serving to draw the game out.

The main element of the game that promised to be fun is the amusement factor: every card represents some comic or movie trope, and the super-villains offer the opportunity to do slightly racist accents (Doctor Hitler vants a banana, dumbkopf!). In turn your choices may at least partly revolve around what will be funny. Care to threaten the world with a giant robot? Or perhaps you’d prefer an army of dinosaurs? As you can imagine, this is fun at first, but the underlying lack of gameplay interest meant that it wasn’t long before even the humour left us cold.

Components: Mwahahaha! is a great-looking game. The box contains high-quality components with unique artwork on most of the 271 cards and on the 10 mad scientist cards. It also contains 20 doomsday devices, which are made of the same sturdy cardboard as the mad scientist cards and designed to slot into them (although we found it was occasionally a bit of a tight fit). Finally, it has 230 colourful tokens and as well as a large number of really spiffing luminous green and purple dice. (The contents claim “all the dice you need to play” – we make it 20 dice.)