Magic is a Heady Wine: unsorted ideas for a Regency letter-writing RPG

Anna & Elena BalbussoAnna & Elena Balbusso

Had some ideas over quarantine for a letter-writing RPG in a Jonathan Strange + Mr Norrell-type setting. You play as Regency-era occultists. None of the play happens in meatspace, it’s all play-by-post. Literal post, as in tree-corpses letters. Each turn takes a month. You can write multiple letters in a turn, to the GM and other players.

The world is split into three Realms:

  • Society. Regency England: glittering lights, letter-writing, fox hunting, political intrigue
  • The War. The battlefields of Europe: artillery, naval combat, mud and smoke and blood
  • The Other Side. Faerie: brambles, dark wine, summer madness

Things that happen in one Realm affect the other two. New developments in the War will change Society gossip; happenings in Society affect the Other Side (because of meddling occultists, and also because Faerie is strangely fascinated by the human world); Faerie politics change the battlefields of the War in strange ways.

By default, players can only influence Society at the start of the game. It’s a big deal to send letters to the other two Realms.

Maybe the Referee distributes a Gazette or something. All the players get the latest issue every three turns. It’s full of updates on what’s happened in the three Realms since the last dispatch.

June 8, 2020 Play-by-Post Campaign Pitch Short posts Magic is a Heady Wine Ideas

d10 Poker Minigame for Mothership

Cowboy BebopCowboy Bebop

The first session of my new Mothership campaign featured a game of poker between three humans and an android. One of my players came up with this system. The players seem to like it.

  • The higher your dice pool total the better your hand
  • Each player starts by rolling 2d10
  • Place bets (call/raise/fold) each round (clockwise around table from dealer)
  • Roll another d10 each round
  • Everyone shows their hand after 5 rounds
  • Highest number wins
May 31, 2020 House Rules Short posts Mothership Something to Burn

Mothership Campaign Pitch: SOMETHING TO BURN

As soon as I read the Mothership rulebook, I wanted to run a game. Then I watched Cowboy Bebop and Alien in the same day and it all clicked.

I want to capture the feeling of players being cowboys”, desperate outsiders on the margins of society, in crushing debt and struggling to survive through loopholes and dirty tricks. The group starts with a ship and a huge amount of debt. Things get worse from there.

I also want to get the aesthetic right: stale beer, recycled air, cramped quarters which smell like cigarette smoke and sweat. Cassette futurism with a healthy dose of 90s anime.

Campaign uses published Mothership rules, some playtest stuff from the discord, houserules from around the web. First game’s later this week. I meant to have a pamphlet to hand out to players, an in-universe guide to the solar system. It won’t be ready for S1, but I’ll get to it eventually.

Something to Burn

He turns off the techno-shit in his goggles. All it does is confuse him; he stands there reading statistics about his own death even as it’s happening to him. Very post-modern.

—Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

It is the 22nd century, and the singularity has failed. Millions of deactivated nanobots float dead in the air, and humanity has spread across the solar system, much of the Earth uninhabitable. Since the Franchise Wars ended eight years ago, the system has become dominated by zaibatsu, immense megacorporations in an uneasy peace. Androids, required by law not to have an inner monologue, are ubiquitous—despite rumours they can trip the wire” and become conscious. And now comes something nobody expected: the return of the Warminds, superintelligent AI whose self-improvement was mysteriously interrupted. They are powerful; they are strange. Most people live slowly suffocating lives in franchised territory. But some make a living on the margins, doing the dirty work: bounty hunting, space-hulk salvage, search-and-rescue, search-and-destroy. That’s where you come in. See you, space cowboy…

System: Mothership

Appx. N: Cowboy Bebop, Alien and sequels, Snow Crash, Blade Runner, Neuromancer, CHOKEPOINT

Player buy-in: Sci-fi horror. You’re drifters who live under constant and crushing pressure, always half-a-step away from disaster. You lead dangerous, violent, and unstable lives under the shadows of crushing monoliths of power. You want to get rich; you’ll probably die trying. The alien monster was capitalism all along! Do you get the metaphor? Do you get th

May 27, 2020 Campaign Pitch Mothership Something to Burn

Pitch your campaign to your players (feat. my pitch for a Klondike OSR setting)

Somehow I expected to be blogging a lot more during quarantine. Anyway.

There are as many ways to play RPGs as there are people playing them, so it’s worth making sure GM and players are on the same page before you start a whole campaign. No reason to assume that the game you want to run is the game your friends want to play.

The trick (assuming you’re the GM) is to make sure your prospective players have an good idea of what your game is going to look like, and what the tone’s going to be. Then you either convince your friends to try out your game, or go find a group which actually wants to play it. Nothing wrong with that! Just don’t run a game you’re not enthusiastic about for the benefit of your friends. That’s how we ended up with Peter Jackson half-heartedly directing The Hobbit.

The campaign pitch doc

My way of managing expectations is my Campaign Pitch Doc. I’ve set it up as a page on this site. It’s a document which describes all the campaigns I’m interested in running. (I got the idea from a Matt Colville video.) I try to make each pitch interesting to read and short. My friends have a high tolerance for my bullshit by now, but nobody wants to do RPG homework. If nobody can be bothered reading your campaign pitches, there’s no point in writing them.

Whenever I’m ready to start a new campaign, I either pick one from the list and send it to some friends who might be interested, or I send the whole thing to a group chat and let people choose what they want to play. It’s worked well so far. (I think part of the trick is that I try to keep my campaigns short, done within a year. If everyone likes a game, we can do a sequel in the same setting.)

Each campaign pitch in the Doc follows a set structure, based on what I think’s important in a game and what’s relevant to prospective players. Some things worth noting are: what are some pop-culture reference points for the setting? Will we need any safety tools? And just why the hell would people want to play in it, anyway?

Here’s an example of how I lay out a pitch: Midnight Sun, a game of dungeon-running canaries” during the Klondike Gold Rush.

Midnight Sun

Chilkoot PassChilkoot Pass

There are strange things done in the midnight sun / By the men who moil for gold; / The Arctic trails have their secret tales / That would make your blood run cold…

—Robert W. Service, The Cremation of Sam McGee

It is 1898, and gold has been discovered in the Yukon. Thousands of prospectors are making their way northwards to make their fortunes. They don’t know what they’re in for. The terrible things which spill out from the World Below have left dozens of mines abandoned and boarded shut. But there’s something about the thought of all that gold which plays on a man’s mind. There are those desperate enough, mad enough, to venture deep underground in search of abandoned gold. The miners have a word for you: CANARIES. Get rich or die trying.

System: Knave

Appx. N: Jack London stories, To Build a Fire, Dominion Creek, Songs of a Sourdough

Player buy-in: Snow cowboy dungeon-crawling.

April 24, 2020 Campaign Pitch Midnight Sun Knave

1d12 other forms potions can take

  1. Drink. The classic. Easy to make, but they usually expire in a month or so.
  2. Tablet. Crunchy. Tastes bad and not as effective as a liquid potion, but they don’t come in smashable glass bottles or expire.
  3. Bubblegum. Slow-release of the potion over twenty minutes or so. Don’t pop the bubble.
  4. Aerosol spray/gas. Usually come in a glass tube (snap + inhale) or sometimes in bellows. Difficult to carry, but very useful. Can be piped through tubes, under doorways, etc.
  5. Syringe. Very effective, but the comedown is usually horrible.
  6. Powder. Can be snorted, dusted on the body, poured into an open wound. Cheap and easy to carry in an envelope. Unscrupulous alchemists might cut” it with cheaper potions, with interesting effects.
  7. Unguent. Grease is the word. Soaks through the skin. Useful for smearing on door handles and so on. Slippery.
  8. Incense. Affects those who smell it. The stronger the smell, the stronger the effect. Useful for setting traps.
  9. Tattoo ink. Allows you to store a potion in your skin for as long as you need it. Impossible to break or remove (at least without removing the skin), but anything able to detect magic will notice it. Becomes a normal non-magical tattoo after one use.
  10. Basilisk. Delivers magic to the brain via the visual cortex. Looks like a tremendously complicated pattern or sigil. The potion takes effect the instant you see it. Defacing the pattern or wearing cut-glass goggles renders it useless.
  11. Organ. Ask an alchemist to open you up and pop a new potion-release organ inside. Like an insulin pump. 2-in-6 chance your body will reject it.
  12. Glass globe full of spiders. When the globe is broken, they try to clamber inside the nearest person’s mouth to administer the potion.
January 30, 2020 Potions Short posts Tables Random Tables

MALL RATS: unsorted ideas for a Maze Rats campaign set in an INFINITE DEAD MALL

You’re dragging yourself away from Security, leaving a trail of blood dark on spotless linoleum tiles. Tinny music plays through hidden speakers as you reach behind you — only to find you’re out of crossbow bolts. Security comes closer, scales silently sliding against one another. You’re exhausted. You don’t know how long it’s been since you slept; there’s no day or night here. Security opens its mouth wide. Breath hot on your face.

This is clearly one of those ideas where the name came first and then everything else. It was 3 a.m. and I was looking at my copy of Ben Milton’s excellent Maze Rats and for a second it looked like it said Mall Rats. Then I realised I had to make this and so I made a blog and here I am.

Joseph Manola wrote about how fascinated old-school RPG writers are by the æsthetics of ruin. Dead malls, left abandoned after they stopped being profitable, seem like a prime example of modern-day ruins. There’s something I find really eerie about these pictures of totally deserted shopping centres.

Basically, it’s a game set in a dead mall that goes on forever. My thinking is that the project would combine a slight hack/reskin of Maze Rats with a much larger section of resources for procedural-generating an infinite, hostile, dead mall complex. Gardens of Ynn, but with Hot Topics instead of topiary.

The Infinite Mall is:

  • Infinite. Obviously. The Mall is everything. There is no outside”. The Mall goes on forever. This is all there is. (There are places which you might briefly think are outside, but they’re just huge rooms, still inside the Mall complex. Look closely, and you’ll see the sun” is just a bright light and the wind” comes from hidden air vents.) Furthermore, it’s unmappable. The Mall shifts and changes whenever you’re not looking, rearranging itself. Different shops vanish and appear at different times.

  • Artificial. Nothing grows in the Mall. Everything is fake here. There’s no sunlight, only buzzing fluorescent lights which sting to look at. There are no real flowers, only plastic imitations. Even the air is stale. Food is all processed: scavenged frozen tacos and slushies. Everything is artificial, tacky, stagnant.

  • Hostile. The Mall is inherently hostile to human existence. It’s not sentient, as such, but it has a horrible cunning. Think of it as a very very clever virus. The Mall does not want humans to exist in it. (Perhaps it needed us once, but our usefulness to it is finished.) There’s no day/night cycle. The lights hurt your vision. The tinny music slowly drives you crazy. The Mall hates you, and so it manifests Mall Security, to kill the infection like white blood cells.

Update 31/01/20: The reddit thread for this post made the Best of 2019 in r/osr list!

October 17, 2019 Campaign Pitch Mall Rats Maze Rats