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Retro Review: Castle Falkenstein

Published in 1994 by R. Talsorian Games, Castle Falkenstein by Mike Pondsmith is a game of adventure in the sorcerous steampunk alternative reality of New Europa, a world as much of Victorian and Victorian-set fiction and fairytale-styled magic, dragons and fairies as of real history.

Castle Falkenstein was a game that I was very interested in when it came out, but although I enjoyed reading through an adventure for it in Roleplayer Independent, I never did get hold of it or have a chance to actually play it. With its focus on Faerie in the Victorian era, it is quite similar to For Faerie, Queen & Country from TSR (published in 1993 – obviously Victorian Faerie was flavour of the moment!), a setting that I rather enjoyed at the time. Where it is different is that it focuses a little earlier in the period and upon the continent, rather than Britain, primarily the German states: Bayern (Bavaria) is a leading member of the Second Compact that is battling against Prussia and their Unseelie allies.

Unlike many roleplaying games, Castle Falkenstein starts by building the world with the rules coming almost as an afterthought. Partly, this is due to the conceit that the book is actually the edited writings of a computer game designer, Tom Olam, who was ‘spellnapped into New Europe where he helped restore King Ludwig to the throne of Bayern and thwart the ambitions of Prussia to dominate New Europa, and who has sent back his journal and various notes to his friend, Mike Pondsmith, in our Earth. The rules, in turn, are supposed to be one ones he designed for his friends in his new home, hence some the variations from gaming norms. In some ways this conceit is useful, for example by allowing Tom to describe how things are different to our reality. Unfortunately, it does have its drawbacks, both in terms of the limitations of Tom’s knowledge (this is not a game for GMs who want to know every last detail about everything) and the increasingly irritating references to the way events are liable to turn out from the perspective of someone who has lived post-World War II – had these been in-universe statements, they would have been amusing in a ‘hilarious in hindsight’ sense, but Tom (as we do) already knows how things panned out in our universe, so the sly references are just annoying – you know about the war, we know about the war, why be so coy about it?

The basic idea of the setting is a great one and I really wanted to love it, but it doesn’t quite work. Although ‘it isn’t our world’ is invoked as an excuse for both designer and Host (GM) when things don’t quite match with real history – and, let’s face it, with fairies, dragons and weird science, you were hardly expecting an exacting historical simulation, were you? – I found the fact that it was modeled so closely upon real history, despite major divergences, distracting. It is not only the fact that the presence of Faerie, dwarfs, dragons and sorcery have failed to have much of an impact upon history, but that, in the one case where they apparently did, specifically a Faerie Lord transforming the middle of Germany into a sea, it has had no real impact upon the course of history! It’s not that I’m expecting a highly-detailed alternate history timeline, nor that I have a problem with the basic concept of borrowing from history and fiction, it’s just that I’d like to have seen the differences acknowledged more. If you can ignore such issues, then you will doubtless enjoy the setting without reservations, but I would have to rewrite a chunk of background, either to modify history to reflect the changes or make it so that the public appearance of Faerie and such like is more recent, allowing older history to remain much the same due to their influence being behind the scenes.

Plenty of information is included on things such as currencies, militaries and period culture, but there are some odd points. For example, rather than the 240 pennies to the pound of reality, the UK of New Europa has 200 pennies – yet the pound is equal in value to other currencies, making the British penny worth half anyone else’s pennies, rather than the pound being worth two of the other currencies; which is just so weird, especially as, in reality, the Shilling would have been the unit closer in value to the Dollar and Franc. As far as I can tell, the idea was to slip in jokes about stuffy old Brits and their odd currency without forcing innumerate Americans to actually handle a weird currency. The whole situation is further exacerbated by the frankly bizarre comment that the British insist that you convert your currency if you want to purchase things in their shops. So, not only is every other currency equal in value – no exchange rates in this world – but it seems that you can spend them freely anywhere in the world… Why not just state that a Single European Currency has been established, if that’s what you want? I know these are essentially minor, easily overlooked issues, but they are exactly the sort of thing that derail my enjoyment and make me want to throw the book across the room, as much for the way in which the author is insulting all the intelligent Americans I know by presenting a narrator who embodies the worst archetypes of idiotic American incomprehension of anything beyond their shores. Plenty of research obviously went into creating the setting – there is an extensive bibliography – yet utterly silly things like this slip through…

Which all translates into a feeling of disappointment as it’s a game brimming with great ideas that I want to use. The Faerie races are interesting and enjoyably close to folk lore whilst equally being reflective of the, more prevalent today, Faerie as fiction or dream made manifest. The dwarfs and their connection to the Faerie is unusual and, most of all, the dragons are a very interesting departure from the norm, being magic-using descendants of pterosaurs rather than the more usual giant-lizard with wings. I have a feeling that, as fun as it is to read, it might just have been better had Tom Olam not been the narrator…

As for the rules, they were the opposite of the setting in that they work, but did little for me. They use cards rather than dice and are a little too fiddly for my tastes. I just want to resolve events simply and a dice is perfect for that. Keeping track of cards is just too much hassle for the sort of run-of-the-mill events that are likely to come up and, whilst there are some interesting rules for dueling, which attempt to recreate the actual cut-and-thrust of a sword duel, they are even more fiddly and gimmicky, undermining their novelty. They do, however, evoke the intended feel of the period and are workable, so there is no real reason, if you can tolerate them, not to use them.

The one area, though, where the rules did shine was the rules for magic use. The use of cards works well here to simulate the way sorcerers build energy and the rules for Harmonics, where different types of energy (represented by different suits of cards) are woven together to power a spell, are interesting as they cause spells to go awry in interesting and imaginative ways, whilst still achieving their effect – and the likelihood that you won’t have all the cards to cast a spell without a Harmonic effect means that players of sorcerers will need to balance the risk of unintended side-effects against the necessity of casting a spell as soon as possible. If you want magic that works in this way, then this system may be worth importing to other settings.

Overall, Castle Falkenstein is a game full of neat idea that don’t quite add up, at least for me. it is a great read in itself and is well worth mining for ideas, but I’m not sure it is worth playing as it stands, although it would doubtless be an excellent setting if tweaked a little. Certainly worth a look if you enjoy mixing magic with the Victorian period!

Review of ‘Fantasy Freaks And Gaming Geeks’

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is a book by Ethan Gilsdorf, who is attempting to reconnect to his youth as a roleplayer by immersing himself in various aspects of the gaming and related hobbies. He reads The Lord of the Rings and watches the movies before visiting New Zealand to see where they were filmed. He slings a few dice and, eventually, rediscovers his own D&D gear, adding to the nostalgia. Later, he tries his hand at LARPing and the Society For Creative Anachronism, as well as online gaming.

Throughout the book, he ponders the appeal of gaming and other pursuits he perceives as geeky, and wonders how they ended up becoming so mainstream compared to his youth. As much as it is an examination of gaming and related cultures, this is a book of self-discovery, as he comes to better understand himself.

In the end, as interesting as some parts were and as much as there were ‘that’s true’ moments, I largely felt as if I were reading an account of these hobbies by somebody who didn’t really ‘get’ them. By that, I don’t mean he misunderstood them as badly as some people do, who just cannot get their heads around them, after all, Gilsdorf had gamed in his youth; but, his observations and musings frequently come across as surface and unsure. Nothing is particularly inaccurate, but its all just ever-so-slightly, annoyingly off, and that meant I couldn’t really enjoy reading the book nor pay much heed to his assessments. In addition, the brevity of each overview meant that the book is seldom as interesting as it might have been. Perhaps, if he had concentrated on just one specific area, such as D&D, he might have been able to properly grasp it and write something insightful.

Sadly, I can’t recommend the book, as it fails to live up to its potential. Which is a shame, as it has a lot of potential and Gilsdorf isn’t a bad writer as such. I am sure that with more focus (or with a different subject) he could write something truly entertaining. Sadly, this isn’t it. If you have the opportunity to borrow a copy, you might enjoy a quick flick through, but I really wouldn’t bother buying it.


1938 :  A Very British Civil War is a great ‘what if’ setting for wargames (see my previous piece for full details) and I was very pleased to track down some further volumes in the series. Those mentioned in my previous piece are those most useful and necessary for understanding the setting; these ones are ‘optional extras’.

The Army of Prince Albert, Lord Protector details the Albertine faction of the civil war, desperately attempting to restore sanity to a fractured and disunited kingdom, but finding it difficult to unify the anti-Edwardian factions. The usual mic of background information and wonderful colour plates illustrating troops and personalities are supplemented with some uniform details.

The County Forces, Militia and Yeomanry is a two-volume look at the uniforms of the English militaries during the Civil war (Scotland and Wales are not yet covered). Part One covers the counties upto M, and Part two covers those from N onward, as well as cavalry. These two volumes are purely uniform guides intended to provide uniform details and inspiration to model painters. Their scope is, thus, rather restricted and not for everyone, although they do what they set out to do very well. Personally, I would have liked actual information about the different forces – but, even though I am not currently modelling figures for the setting, and probably wouldn’t have sought out the volumes solely as a guide if I was, I found looking through these two volumes strangely compelling and fascinating. Certainly not a necessity, but potentially useful and fun, too, although those willing to put the effort into their own research might prefer to actually look up and details of period uniforms themselves and extrapolate for fictional units.

A Guide To Tanks and Military Vehicles does just what it says on the cover, with some general details on the development of armour in the period, along with copious photographs of models to inspire the gamer to create their own weird and wonderful contraptions, as well as colour plates and an article on converting a die-cast vehicle into an AFV. It is a fun volume and full of inspiration, but it will not be of much use if what you actually want is hard data.

The North Somerset Campaign is one of the meatier volumes in the series. As the title suggests, it details the campaign of the Somerset Freedom Fighters in the north of the county. It provides an enjoyable write-up of the background and events and some basic rules for replaying the campaign (originally held as a convention event). Although in no sense essential to understanding the setting nor for playing battles in it, it could prove useful if you need help setting up a campaign game or would like a ready-made campaign without having to research the terrain and politics of a local area.

As with the previous volumes, the £8 cost for each slim A5 volume is steep, especially for the uniform and vehicle guides, although the lavish use of colour and the wonderful photographs and plates readily justify the cost. Although it didn’t seriously bother me, there are quite a few typos and the grammar and spelling are not great, which is a shame. Whilst I enjoy the series as a whole and did enjoy these particular volumes, I would not recommend any of them particularly highly unless you specifically require the information for a project, although completists will satisfied with them.

1938 :  A Very British Civil War is a great idea that the sourcebooks don’t quite do justice to. I would love to see all the information compiled into a single, high-quality volume with the text written to match the quality of the photos and colour plates. It has proven successful so far, but I think it deserves an even wider audience. being an absolutely brilliant idea for a wargame.

Wargaming Magazines

With Battlegames entering the mainstream, there are currently four wargaming magazines available on the British High Street (ignoring White Dwarf, which is dedicated solely to Games Workshop product). These are Wargames Illustrated [WI], Wargames: Soldiers and Strategy [WSS], Miniature Wargames [MW] and Battlegames [BG] (sister magazine to Miniature Wargames and recently given away as a sample issue with that magazine, prompting this comparison). Given the variety, I wanted to examine each of them and see which offered the best value to gamers.

Title                           Price              Pages (inc. covers)        Non-Ad Pages

WI #303                    £4.50               124 (3.6p per page)              99 (4.5p per page)

WSS #64                 £4.20                84 (5p per page)                 72 (5.8p per page)

MW #357                 £4.25                 72 (5.9p per page)               55 (7.7p per page)

BG #32                   £4.95*               52 (9.5p per page)             36 (13.75p per page)

* regular price (this issue free with MW #357)

As can be seen from these initial comparisons, whilst all four are similar enough in price for it to not make a huge difference between them in itself, Wargames Illustrated offers by far the best value for money, whilst Battlegames offers by far the worst, being three times the latter on a cost per page basis. But, what of their content?

Title                              News Pages              Scenarios     Setting Articles  

WI #303                            4                                        5                         3

WSS #64                          1                                        4                         2

MW #357                          9                                        2                          –

BG #32                             3                                        2                          –

Title                         Rules/Campaigns      Reviews         Tips*           Other

WI #303                                 1                            –                 1                 2

WSS #64                               1                           22                3                 6

MW #357                               –                            22                1                 6

BG #32                                  2                            5                 3                 1

* Suggestions on painting, modeling and such like.

Title                     Eras Covered

WI #303  WWI, WWII, French & Indian Wars, Victorian Colonial/Pulp, Swiss Civil War

WSS #64               Crusades, WWII, Sudan, Ancients, Marlburian, 100 Years War

MW #357                Wars of the Roses, Marlburian (?), Napoleonic, WWII

BG #32                   Crusades, AWI

Obviously, whether to purchase a magazine is not solely a question of overt value for money based upon page count; the reader will be influenced by what they want to get out of it. Although all four have substantial numbers of pages dedicated to advertising, Wargames Illustrated not only has the most, but manages that feat whilst providing both the most non-advertising pages and best value for money; it is also a close second in terms of number of eras covered, despite being both themed and incorporating a regular Flames of War section. It is also both the most lavishly illustrated (as its title should suggest) and the strongest in terms of supplying actual gaming material such as background information and scenarios.

If it is news that you want, Miniature Wargames is probably the magazine that you desire, whilst it and Wargames: Soldiers and Strategy tie on the number of reviews (the only area where Wargames Illustrated absolutely fails to deliver), making it a good magazine for those who want to know what is going on in terms of events and releases.

Battlegames could be considered the ‘advanced gaming’ sister title to Miniature Wargames, although nothing in it would really have been out of place in the latter. Although it contained some articles with interesting ideas and I really wanted to like it, it was just too lightweight in both terms of content and coverage to justify the high cover price (I probably wouldn’t pay more than £2 for it, to be honest). I’m not entirely certain what they are aiming for with the magazine, as it didn’t really seem to have a proper identity of its own; had they worked with the apparent ‘advanced’ idea, providing chunky and thought-provoking articles, it may well have been worth it, but not as it is…

Wargames Illustrated is the only one of these magazines that I regularly buy and, being on a limited budget, that is unlikely to change as none proved sufficiently interesting or useful to challenge it. Of the others, Wargames: Soldiers and Strategy would likely be my second choice. Overall, I find Wargames Illustrated the most interesting read – even articles on eras or topics I don’t have much interest in are still useful and interesting, many of the articles are the equal of a good history book in appraising you of the details of often obscure military topics, and the copious photographs and illustrations add to the written content in a way none of its rivals have managed to achieve. In essence, it feels professional, whilst the other three all feel amateurish by comparison, whilst also maintaining the lead in length and value. Of course, in an ideal world, I would be purchasing all four on a regular basis, as they all contain items of interest to inform and entertain, and, if you are lucky enough to have plenty of money, then go for it; but, if, like me, you are on a limited budget, go for Wargames Illustrated – in my opinion, not only the best value, but the best of the bunch…

(In the interests of full disclosure, I have had work published in both Wargames Illustrated and Miniature Wargames – although not for a long time – and, aside from Battlegames, this being the first time I had seen a copy, have read all three previous to this comparison.)

On “The Glorious Reascent of Yelm”

The Glorious Reascent of Yelm

By Greg Stafford

(published by Issaries, Inc.)

The Glorious Reascent of Yelm is a photocopied, small-press-style publication, the first volume of Greg Stafford’s Work in Progress for Glorantha. It’s been around for years, but I finally managed to pick up a copy from Leisure Games for £20; if that sounds like a lot for a fairly basic publication, remember that it consists of over a hundred pages of packed information.

As the title indicates, the book largely consists of The Glorious Reascent of Yelm, “The Foundation Document of Dara Happa”, a mythological history of one of Glorantha’s most important realms. In addition, it includes a look at the God’s Wall where images of all the acknowledged deities of the land can be seen (complete with notes on the various gods and goddesses), genealogies of the figures mentioned in the text, “some star lore” and a few other, pertinent myths, all presented as an in-world document, as fans of Glorantha willbe familiar with.

This is a ‘work in progress’, a 90% completed text that, thus, may have its errors and omissions (I am not sufficiently versed in Gloranthan lore to note any factual errors, but there are a few literal errors – typos and pencilled-in corrections – in anything else these would detract from the quality, but, here, they seem in place and didn’t bother me a jot!). The book grew out of Greg’s background notes for a book on the Lunars, the mythology of Dara Happa being at the root of their faith. Other than the cover and one element of the Gods Wall, the art is nothing to speak of, but it does what it needs to and means that, whilst it may not be pretty, it gives you the information that you want (and being intended as illustrations of facts, rather than as artwork per se, the crudity doesn’t detract in the way that you might expect).

I’ve always enjoyed the seeming scholarly realism of Glorantha – the speculation and the in-world errors of the scribes supposedly recording all this lore – and volumes such as this and The King of Sartar  are wonderful to read.

Although this is a supplement to Glorantha, there are no game rules nor any background of the sort commonly seen in gaming supplements. Many gamers will have little use for this – especially if you don’t enjoy faux history and mythology textbooks – but I think most Gloranthaphiles will be interested (in fact, they probably already own it!) and, due to the nature of the world-specific mythology, will be of little direct use to anyone playing other games, although it might inspire some transferable ideas (oddly enough, one brief line actually inspired some science-fantasy ideas in me). But, for lovers of mythology and fictional history, it will prove a fascinating read and will broaden your knowledge of Glorantha. In addition, it could be used as an in-game document for player characters to encounter in Dara Happa. Recommended.

Amoral Characters

If there’s one thing certain to get gamers riled, it’s a discussion on alignment. It’s an oddity really as, no matter whether the game intends you to play heroic good guys or not, most players end up playing fairly amoral characters. Not particularly bad or necessarily even terribly lawless, depending upon the amount of law existing in the fictional milieu, just self-interested and largely programmed that ‘ the end justifies the means’. Sure, a lot of players like the idea of being the wonderful good-guy hero, but few really pull it off. No matter how many discussions you see about playing ‘evil characters’ and arguing over the morality and feasibility of doing so, very few players, in my experience, want to play genuinely evil characters. Even when you hear discussions about ‘blowing off some steam’ after playing do-gooders. Probably because those do-gooders are more often than not pretty amoral in reality rather than truly good. People may want to play an anti-hero, a character who is openly amoral and self-interested, as opposed to the usual gloss of goodness, but they don’t really want to play someone who is irredeemably evil.

Recently, I’ve been part of a D&D campaign in which we are playing openly amoral characters with little vested interest in anything beyond their petty concerns. (Amusingly, I even started with the concept of a law-enforcer with some degree of ‘goodness’ about him – it didn’t last!) It’s been fun not trying to justify our characters’ behaviour beyond their own immediate needs and wants. They haven’t done anything particularly bad, but they are hardly upstanding pillars of the community (well, they are, but it’s hardly the most salubrious of towns!). Although we may have set in train the end of the world, or, at least, civilisation as we know it, and, at the very least, have been inducted into a sinister ninja cult. But, we’re more worried about how that will impact our fortunes than about the great scheme of things!

It’s been good fun not having to try and justify our actions beyond the characters’ own scruples and desires – and has made for a surprisingly complex game. When one imagines the stereotypical ‘evil’ campaign, it tends to involve lots of unsubtle backstabbing and betrayal, coupled with unbridled violence. The amoral campaign is much more interesting than that – without moral certainty, characters grope about for solutions much as most people do in real life, making mistakes and regreting their actions, and, sometimes, scoring big time. It’s well worth trying….

Wargames Illustrated at 300

Wargames Illustrated has celebrated reaching both its 300th issue and 25th anniversary with a super-sized issue. Having collected it regularly for at least half its run, I am glad it has kept going for so long and looks set to keep going for another 300, whilst maintaining its high standards.

Wargames Illustrated has long been my favourite gaming magazine and always my favourite wargaming magazine. In a sense, it is a surprise that this is so – given the clue in its title, being driven by its illustrations and photo-content, it would be easy to assume that it would be mainly about entertainment value, full of pretty pictures, but lacking in substance. But, that isn’t true – although the articles are always well illustrated, I have found that they are always extremely useful and informative. Its rivals never seem to fascinate or inform me in the same manner. If you have any interest in historical or modern wargaming (and the occasional alternate history and gothic horror), then this is a magazine that you should be reading.

The 300th issue is bumper-sized (which does mean an increased cover price) with the theme of “last stands and against the odds” – a can see where they’re coming from (thriving against the seeming odds), yet last stands seems unintentionally pessimistic for an anniversary issue!

There are over 25 articles in this issue, ranging across time and even, in one instance, into an alternate timeline where Britain has been invaded by Nazis intent on stealing a prize pig (well, the High Command is intent on conquest, but this particular scenario involves stealing a prize pig – yes, it’s as silly as it sounds and yet absolutely wonderful!), including some non-scenario articles. Most of the articles are entirely self-contained, with only one being the first part of a longer article and a couple referring the reader to the magazine’s website for further information (a trend that, whilst useful for providing additional titbits that didn’t fit in the issue, I find slightly irksome, although, if you are reading this review, it is unlikely you will find checking their website too great a difficulty!).

Some of the articles are somewhat predictable – Little Bighorn and Black Hawk Down – although still good pieces, nonetheless, but some are anything but obvious – for example, the brief clash between Britain and Zanzibar that was the shortest war in history. Although a little wearisome when multiple articles labour the same point, there is a good stab at making even doomed factions gameable (so, rather than a traditional stand-up fight, one side is ‘wins’ when it reaches its specific victory conditions, which might involve holding out for a set number of turns so that the rest of the army can arrive or escape, or achieving acts of glorious heroism).

Of the various articles, those that particularly entertained me were the Roman attack on the isle of Mona, a recreation of the raid recounted in Y Gododdin, the French Foreign Legion in Mexico and the gunboat diplomacy against Zanzibar, but there were none that I didn’t enjoy. An extremely interesting issue that was well worth reading!

Retro Review – Ziran

The Secret of Ziran – Core Rulebook

The Hand of Fate Book

Having finally got my own hand on The Hand of Fate Book (that’s Gamesmaster’s Book to anyone unfamiliar with the setting), I had the urge to give this fantastic setting another look. Although I’ve never actually played The Secret of Ziran, I’ve really enjoyed delving in the core rulebook numerous times down the years as it presents a great setting and some neat rule ideas.

In brief, the world of Ziran is a pulp-styled fantasy setting that has been deserted by the gods and recovered from a great war against superpowerful humans with god-like powers (and, indeed, god complexes) called Fane. Although similarly-themed fantasy settings have appeared since, it still contains quite a few original and intriguing ideas.

The core rulebook paints the world of Ziran in broad strokes – every nation is presented to the reader, but much detail is left undescribed. The Hand of Fate Book  does flesh the world out a little more, although not to the degree that I had hoped, with details on conspiracies and organisations that can be used to assist or oppose the PCs. This minimalist approach will suit those Gamesmasters who like plenty of freedom to create their own version of a setting or who dislike having to search through reams of data for minor pieces of information about a setting, but will annoy those who thrive on the little details or prefer to be able to focus their creativity on the adventure at hand rather than world creation.

The use of pulp stereotypes provides plenty of hooks upon which to hang plots, character descriptions and location, although some might find things a little cliched.

Although the title of the game and quite a bit of discussion about it refers to the secrets of the setting, these are actually rather understated and do not constitute the sort of metaplot obsession that annoys many gamers. Really, the secrets should be seen as a theme of the setting. The main secrets are listed in The Hand of Fate Book, but, if you were hoping for answers, you will find none as they are deliberately left for the Hand of Fate to decide upon as suits their own game. A little annoying if you wanted to learn more about the setting, but a good call if you are actually going to play in it.

Although an early 20th century-style technology dominates Ziran, given the pulp nature of the game, magic is a dominant force and comes in two styles – Rune Magic and Shadow Magic, both of which are interesting variants on the usual fare of fantasy spellcraft. The former sees mages wielding a ‘stylus’ to create runes (whether on objects or beings or in the air) that produce magical effects; this type of magic actually powers much of the technology in use in the setting. Shadow Magic is a newer sort of magic and has a poorer reputation as it involves drawing upon the spirit energy inherent in one’s shadow, often to produce strange and unsettling effects. The Hand of Fate Book provides some additional spells, but the core rulebook has plenty to be getting started with.

As I haven’t actually played a game of Ziran, I cannot comment on the rules beyond the fact that they seem workable on the page and character creation involves the use of ‘packages’ that represent careers or periods of activity; the idea is that characters, as heroes, have already had a fairly mundane (if, perhaps, exciting) life before embarking on their careers as world-changing adventurers, and, so, have plenty of useful skills and abilities.

Aside from being a little lacking in terms of monsters, a ‘flaw’ that The Hand of Fate Book corrects, the core rulebook contains everything you need to start your adventures in Ziran and the other book, whilst useful, is not essential. Ziran is a great setting for those who enjoy the pulp and fantasy genres and it offers a strong framework for adventure with plenty of leeway to develop the world as you wish and the potential for different types of campaign. Highly recommended.

You must be having a laugh!

Humour in gaming probably raises the most questions of any play style. I am, of course, referring to comedy games, not the jokes and bad puns that can derail the tensest moments of an adventure. A majority of gamers seem to have a predisposition to trying a comedy game (perhaps due to the sense of humour behind those derailing jokes), but few seem able to make it work, especially as a campaign.

From personal experience, I think the explanation is that, too often, the humour is forced. It’s like watching a badly-written comedy series where the script writers had clearly run out of ideas and are desperately trying to amuse us – and failing. Rather than wall-to-wall zaniness, except perhaps for cathartic one-off games, we should perhaps draw our inspiration from well-written comedies and realise that the best keep the comedy subordinate to the story. Even if the story is, itself, innately silly, the comedy is not allowed to overwhelm it. The plot proceeds, characters develop, there will often be some serious moments, and the comedy is largely restricted to key moments where it can explode with full force, rather than an attempt to maintain a set level of silliness all the way through. Rather than making the story more amusing, attempting to keep it funny all the time, especially with a single brand of comedy, dilutes the humour. Mixing the types of humour and allowing for some lows between the comedic highs makes the whole much more sustainable. Why not give it a try?

Handling Hangups

Do you have a hangup with a gaming setting that you want to play in? I’m not talking about rules or presentation, but issues with actual aspects of the setting that are a hurdle to enjoying it. This seems to be becoming a more and more common problem thanks to the nagging guilt of political correctness that something might be offending someone somewhere, and is a particular problem when it comes from historical, alternative historical and historically-derived/-inspired settings, where, naturally, cultures and attitudes are different to those of today. So, what can you do when confronted with themes in a setting that you are uncomfortable with? My suggestion is to try the following steps before giving up completely – and, most importantly, involve the entire group where possible.

  1. Think it over. Sometimes, due to a kneejerk response, we think something is a problem when it really isn’t; or, you may be assuming that someone else in your group will take offence when they won’t. Equally, attitudes and experiences are subjective, so you might find someone has a big issue with something that might seem minor to you due to personal issues. If there really is a problem that has to be dealt with, move to step two.
  2. Can you struggle against it? Just because an element exists in a setting doesn’t mean that you have to embrace it – you can have great fun playing characters who are challenging the status quo or even struggling with their own worse natures. Obviously, not everyone will be comfortable with an issue being included, even as a bad thing, and not everyone wants their escapist gaming session dominated by moral questions, so this is not for everyone.
  3. Can you minimise the presence of the element? Is it possible to play character who are not affected by it or set the game where it is less prevalent? Essentially, many issues can be more-or-less ignored if they just don’t impinge on your game. In particular, areas with a pioneer spirit often pay lipservice to the cultural norms of the dominant group, but honour them more in the breach due to the need to put survival first. This will not always work if certain players are committed to playing specific types of characters in every game, no more than a game of social interaction andpolitics will work with a player dedicated to playing a psychopathic killer in every campaign, although that then leaves you with the question of whether to boot the player or change the setting, if you are unable to resolve the issue with steps four or five.
  4. Can you easily remove it? Some elements might seem prominent in an era or a genre of fiction but are not actually that important in defining it or setting the mood, meaning it might be possible to remove it without damaging the broader setting and its themes and mood.
  5. Finally, we reach the point where removing the element would seriously alter the setting. In this case, you have to ask yourself what it is about the setting that you actually like, what actually made you want to play it in the first place. Perhaps, you might be able to shift your focus to a different era or country where the problematic element did not exist to the same extent, but which contains the elements that you do like. Or, you might be able to find the elements that you do like in a fictional setting that doesn’t include the things that bother you, or even create your own fictional setting developed from the points that did grab your attention.