Wednesday 26 August 2020



I’ve been writing this blog for nearly 3 years now, which means 3 years of being a hobbyist RPG person. I had brushes with games before then, but in my mind that’s when I started being an active participant. Since then I’ve become a professional RPG person, as in I’ve been paid to make stuff, but I still pretty much see myself as a hobbyist.

This is probably a combination of good old impostor syndrome and the fact that the infinitesimally low barrier to entry for RPGs means that there’s very little distinction between different “levels” of engagement with the hobby. A GM with a home game is a game designer already. If you put your home game notes up and earn a few bucks off itch or the DM’s Guild (don’t use the DM’s guild, it’s ass) you’ve got a foot in both the entry level and highest echelons of the industry - doing it for free and doing it for a bit of money. It can be hard to know where you stand - best to carve out a niche of your own.

The whole time I’ve been writing here I’ve been working on GRAVEROBBERS. It wasn’t called that to begin with, and it’s changed drastically through various iterations, but hey so’s D&D. I’ve always seen it as the same ongoing project, from when it was “the heist game” I mentioned in one of my earliest posts that got any kind of attention to when I first put up the public alpha.

If you don’t know what GRAVEROBBERS is... well, that’s probably my fault. The aforementioned impostor syndrome and just a general anxiety get in the way of me talking about my stuff, pushing it and putting it out there. I’ll never be a SEO-optimised marketing bro, but there’s got to be a balance between that and barely communicating.

I’m drafting a “GM’s guide” type section of play procedures for GRAVEROBBERS right now, and I keep pushing this idea of communication being foundational to these kinds of games. I should probably take my own advice a bit more, huh.


I’ve always kind of struggled with the setting of GRAVEROBBERS, mostly without realising it. The core mechanic covers so much of the game’s tone that I’d considered setting info as a nice bonus, but other games have shown me that what I really appreciate in a setting is specificity. I was never aiming for a “universal” system, I don’t think those particularly work, but more of a D&D thing where the same engine can be put into various flavours of machine. Of course, delving into old school stuff has taught me just how specific D&D really is. Or was, or was meant to be.

The other struggle with setting was more abstract than mechanical. I’ve written before about how GRAVEROBBERS mechanises its morals, how it doesn’t function outside of the assumption that you’re an oppressed minority fighting an oppressive system. It’s a game about struggling in the face of capitalism and societal rejection. This is, clearly, a reflection of my own beliefs, but I also knew when it came to flavouring these faceless mechanics that It wasn’t my place to tell someone else’s story of rebellion.

I abstracted this issue away with the coward’s genre, Western European fantasy, then soon after by leaning into gothic romance - a realm I didn’t feel was appropriative from me to draw from but was also a great source of flavour that fit the rules nicely. That’s how the setting of GRAVEROBBERS has been for a while now - a vague “gothic fantasy”. I could flesh it out in adventure modules, I thought, the openness and range of influences was a boon to players rather than homework, I thought.

I love the gothic, it’s a genre that introduced me to some of my favourite writers and has a strong tradition of feminist and working class texts. But it felt like a well I was going to rather than something that came from out of me and my experience. GRAVEROBBERS is my baby, but there was scant family resemblance.

I’d shied away from expressing myself outside of my art, and I’d been doing the same with GRAVEROBBERS too. If this thing is going to be “my game”, I’m going all in.

And all this realisation came at once when I was designing an adventure and googled “gothic cathedrals” for inspiration, and remembered that I had a perfectly good one barely a 15 minute journey from my front door.

I knew then that I wanted the setting to be based on my home, the city I was born and raised in and love from the depths of my heart, the city my family fled to when the Spanish Inquisition came knocking (Jewish and Romani? Not here you don’t!), the city made of its vibrant, artful, colourful citizens but ruled by an oppressive class of imperialist, colonialist bastards. As limited as my first-hand experience of oppression is, I know what it’s like to be poor in the greatest city in the world.

But it had to be fantasy, not modern, because I didn’t want to write computer hacking rules. So, keeping the looming spectres of medieval gothic and gothic romance in the background, I turned to the urban gothic, and the city of London as depicted by Charles Dickens.

Thieving urchins? Check. The plight of the underclass? Check. Randomly sometimes a ghost? Big ol’ check! It’s a weirdly perfect fit for GRAVEROBBERS and I’m honestly shocked I didn’t see it before. This is still my take on the setting rather than a straight rip - I’m not taking enough from Dickens to call this a “Dickensian fantasy” RPG - but there’s a lot there that fits and I’ll be stealing it all, as light-fingered as the Artful Dodger (though perhaps we’ll leave behind Fagin’s semitic caricature winding up executed vs blond-haired Oliver finding out that he’s actually good and pure because he was from a rich family all along).

A Christmas Carol is the best one btw.

they’re all in. ‘cept maybe steampunk

Yet to Come

GRAVEROBBERS is a set of rules and tools for adventure games of stealth and sedition, set in the gothic fantasy city of Lanton.

Once my zinequest project is sorted, GRAVEROBBERS will get its final “alpha” update, which is going to change a few maths-y bits and add a new “raise” rule to dice rolls, but mostly what it’s for is cementing the new setting (and getting me to start really working on getting this thing done. 3 years is too long already).

And once the alpha version is done?

The Bare Bones are available for free, and always will be. I’ve wanted this project to be free for anyone who wants it, in one form or another, since I started it - and that’s probably what’s been taking me so long. I’m a lot luckier than most, but I’ve spent almost all of those past 3 years below the poverty line, even when I’ve had work.

I’m resolved to take this seriously and put myself and the game out there more, but as it stands I don’t have the time and resources to give that this project needs. Realistically, at this rate I probably won’t be able to continue participating in this hobby.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few RPG jobs here and there, but I need a more solid foundation if I’m really going to buckle down and get this damn game out there. I’m unemployed again right now, and looking for something unrelated to support my writing as I have in the past, but if my eventual goal is to do this full-time I need to step up my game.

Thing is... I’m not yet sure how to go about this. My current thinking is to launch a subscription service, the Graverobbers Gazette, with monthly updates on content, gm stuff, adventures, rules, resources and whatever, plus first looks at the final, fancy version of the book once that becomes a thing. £2 a month for a stream of WIP content, maybe.

I just don’t know if there’s enough interest - I did something similar when I had Patreon and a few awesome supporters stuck it out on there, but that wouldn’t be enough to get GRAVEROBBERS off the ground as a side project, let alone eventually doing it full time. I’m sure getting the Bare Bones laid out nicely and adding an adventure and selling that would generate a bit of attention, but that requires an initial investment to hire people for layout and art and whatnot, and I’m really not at the Kickstarter stage yet.

If you have any interest at all in GRAVEROBBERS - and I’m going to assume you do since you’ve reached the end of this post - please let me know if you want to see more of it and if you’d be willing and able to lend your support in making it happen. And support can be financial, sure, but also retweeting stuff is great, or playing the free version with your group and giving me feedback, or whatever.

I’m prepared to, finally, put my all into this, and give back to the hobby that’s given me so much over the past few years. I really hope there’ll be an audience waiting.

make a Will roll

Thursday 13 August 2020

DEADLINE rules draft + play report

I got a great response on the socials to yesterday’s post about my new game DEADLINE (get up to speed here), thanks to everyone who commented, shared and offered their own thoughts and ideas! It’s super early days but everyone’s reaction has me energised to get to work on this thing.

I figured I might as well share the draft rule book so far, such as it is - this is very sketchy but has all the basic mechanics and should be enough to run the game on (you’ll have to supply your own adventure for now though, sorry!).

Here’s a google doc with the first version of the game.

Like I said everyone’s feedback and ideas have been really awesome and helpful, so if you have any comments, questions, etc about the game now that you’ve read it (especially if you manage to play it!) I’d love to hear them.

The final version will obviously have more mechanics and content than this sketch version, so if you have some thoughts about what you’d like that extra stuff to be let me know that too! Comment on this post, hit me up on Twitter, email me, whatever (my email is in my twitter bio).

I also wrote up a little play report, the idea being that something like this could maybe be included in the final version of the book to help teach the game.

Honestly I think I’ve laid out the rules pretty clearly in terms of giving readers an idea of how gameplay works, but maybe something like this could be useful? It’d be edited down and changed up of course, as with everything the paint is very wet here.

Anyway here’s a Mission Report, with GM advice-type commentary.


Mission Report: Room 106


The best Agents learn from the best. Study the following mission report from Agent 1, and try to find techniques you can utilise when playing your own game.


In this mission, Agent 1 is in a hotel room, behind enemy lines, where she must meet with a supposed defector from the other side who claims to have important information.


As the Agent who has prepared this mission for the other player, Agent 1 currently has all the info, while the Operator has none. Her first objective is to get the Operator on the same page so that he can play along too.


Agent 1: “Ok, so for this mission, I’ve been sent to a hotel room to meet someone and get some secret info. This is our first mission so let’s just work it out as we go.”


Here, Agent 1 is just a player, talking to her friend and explaining the premise of the game. The easiest way to get key information across to someone is always to just tell them! At the very least, an Operator will need to know the objective of a given mission.


Operator: “Cool, makes sense.”


Agent 1: “Operator? This is Agent 1. I’m approaching the room now.”


Now, Agent 1 is speaking in-character. This can be a fun way to bring players into the game, but it isn’t always necessary. The key is to communicate clearly, whether or not you’re acting a role.


Operator: “…”


Here, the Operator is pausing, unsure of what to do. That’s because Agent 1 hasn’t yet given them enough information to go on. They know their overall objective, but not what to do to get to it, or what obstacles might be in their way.


Agent 1: “Shall we check if the room is secure? I don’t trust these people…”


Now, Agent 1 has given the Operator an actionable prompt. She’s not telling them what to do, or doing the thinking for them, but she’s given them a clearer, immediate goal.


Operator: “Ok, uh, listen at the door?”


Agent 1 has all the mission info, and she knows there’s nothing in the room that could be heard through the door. But the Operator doesn’t know that, and is making a pretty sound judgement based on the small amount of information they have.


Agent 1: “Good thinking, Operator… No, I don’t hear anything. Let’s proceed.”


What just happened was an example of the basic cycle of play in DEADLINE. The Agent described a situation, the Operator made a call on what to do next, and the Agent made a decision about how those actions would play out. Everything that happens in your game will be some variation on this basic pattern.


Operator: “And then you get shot as soon as you open the door.”

Agent 1: “Ha, yeah, that would be terrible!”


They’re only joking, but the Operator has just given an example of how an Agent could disrupt that basic cycle of play and possibly ruin their game. If there really was someone waiting with a gun behind that door, it would be the Agent’s responsibility to telegraph that danger somehow. Footprints, noise from the room, or a suspicious individual seen earlier might be good clues.


Then, if the Operator did make the mistake of letting the Agent proceed without caution, it would be their mistake for not paying attention, not the Agent’s for communicating poorly. If an Agent ever realises they’ve misspoken or left out a crucial detail, they can always just apologise and backtrack a bit.


Operator: “Ok so are you in the room now?”


Agent 1: “I’m in. Looks like a pretty standard hotel room… I don’t see anything suspicious…”


Agent 1 knows that the room is bugged because she has all the details of the mission noted down, but within the game, the Agent wouldn’t know this information. Part of the fun is for the Operators to work out what’s going on themselves and investigate the mystery.


Operator: “Ok… So, I guess we just wait here for this meeting?”


Looks like the Operator hasn’t guessed the room might be bugged. Somebody familiar with spy stories might jump to that conclusion, but in this instance Agent 1 simply hasn’t communicated the situation clearly enough. Just like the assassin example, she should have left some clues lying around.


With a bit more time to think, or if she was playing this mission again with someone else, Agent 1 might add to her notes, reminding herself to describe the room as being in disarray, as if someone had been in there before. That might work as a clue.


Agent 1: “Well, like I said, I’m not sure we can trust them… maybe we should search the room?”


For now, Agent 1 is thinking on her feet. Telling the Operator what to do next isn’t a perfect solution, but at least she didn’t reveal the surprise. Now the Operator knows to search, but they don’t know what for, so they’re still able to play the game by coming up with their own plan. If Agent 1 just led them through the mission step by step, they wouldn’t be playing the game along with her.


Operator: “Oh, yeah, there might be traps. Or bugs or something. Ok, uh… Agent 1, search the room.”


Agent 1: “Where should I look? There’s not much in here, just a bed, some lamps, a chest of drawers and a mirror. And there’s the bathroom next door.”


Now, the Operator can play the game. They have agency, information, and can make their own decisions. Agent 1 knows where the bug is, so it would be no fun if she picked where to search.


Operator: “Well, it says on the character sheet that you have Investigation… So can I use that?”


Agent 1: “You could, but that would advance the DOOMSDAY clock. Maybe it’s best not to risk it.”


Operator: “Ok, I think I get it. So rolling dice is dangerous, huh. So what do I do instead?”


Agent 1: “I’m the Agent, you’re the Operator. Just tell me where to search and I’ll get to work.”


Good work, Agent 1. Here, she’s reminding the Operator of the core tension of the game. Just running in blindly and using the Agent’s training to solve every problem will only end badly. She’s encouraging the Operator to rely on LIFELINE more, think creatively and come up with their own plans. That’s going to make for a more engaging and rewarding game.

Operator: “Start with the mirror. It might be one of those two-way mirrors, where they can see you from the other side.”


That’s a good idea from the Operator! In this case, though, it’s just a mirror. However, since Agent 1 knows that this part of the mission is about finding a bug, she decides to reward the Operator’s clever thinking.

Agent 1: “No, it’s just a mirror… It comes away from the wall. Wait a second… You hear a kind of cracking sound, then I whisper through the LIFELINE… It’s a bug! They’d hidden a listening device behind the mirror.”


In Agent 1’s notes, she’d just written that there is a bug in the room. That fact wasn’t going to change. But what wasn’t particularly important was where exactly the bug was. By deciding in the moment that it would be behind the mirror, Agent 1 made the Operator feel good for trusting their instincts, and also saved a lot of time instead of checking every piece of furniture one by one.


Agent 1: “Ok great! You found the bug. That was the first obstacle I had planned. Sorry, that was a bit simple, it should get more interesting from here on.”


Operator: “No, it’s cool! I get the game a bit better now, and I feel like we’re in a spy thriller. I’ll check every room that I can for bugs from now on!”


Agent 1: “I liked your two way mirror idea too, I might steal that…”


Be careful changing details last minute. An Agent is the Operator’s eyes and ears into the mission, and so something only becomes true from the Operator’s perspective once the Agent communicates it. As well as communicating information regularly and in detail, an Agent needs to keep the world of the mission consistent.


If an Operator feels like reality is shifting, or that things only appear or exist for their benefit or to make the mission difficult, they won’t have any fun. Agent 1 could have decided that the mirror really did have a window or camera behind it, but that’s not true to the mission she’s playing here. Sticking to her notes helps her keep the mission’s reality feeling real. Besides, improvising a whole other mystery she hadn’t planned for would be a lot of work!

This part of the mission is now over. An obstacle has been identified and overcome. It’s a small victory, but now both players understand how to play better, and can use that knowledge in future missions.


Nobody starts out as a world class agent. The best way to learn is on the job. Start playing, work things out as you go, make mistakes and have fun.

Wednesday 12 August 2020

oh god not another one

BUTCHERY is in its final stages of development, Paradice Arcade is a go (and will have a small Kickstarter later this year for its first “non-mini” game!), and GRAVEROBBERS is pootling  away in the background as ever.

Obviously, my game design brain cannot let me rest, and so another brand new project is needed. I tweeted about this and a couple of folks seemed interested, so I figured I might as well spill the beans even at this early stage of development. I think there’s some value to doing things relatively out in the open, letting people in from day 1 as it were. Anyway.

Announcing DEADLINE.

DEADLINE is a set of rules and tools (I’ve stopped calling rulesets “games” for the same reason that a LEGO kit with a spaceship on the front doesn’t market itself as a toy spaceship) for tabletop roleplaying adventure games (like, OSR or whatever) in an underworld of intelligence that never was, inspired by the superspy thrillers and Cold War chillers of the 1960s.

Spies. It’s a spy game.

The idea came because I wanted to do a game, any kind of game, where the players are the shadowy intelligence agency that oversees these classic secret agent capers. That seemed fun to me - being in a kind of “mission command” position, as M or Q or whoever, the folks the movie cuts back to when the spy talks into their earpiece, looking at maps and personnel files and overseeing operations.

I like heists for the same reason, hence GRAVEROBBERS - a plan coming together and being executed under pressure, while your enemies are, hopefully, none the wiser.

I tried doing a board game, and bounced off a few ideas, then decided on an RPG. The fun bit of RPGs for me is the adventure game aspect, exploring a situation or world, collecting and utilising information and items, devising and executing your own plans. That’s the whole point of the games I play and make, and those elements of the playstyle at least seemed like a good fit for the genre.

As I saw it, though, there were two big problems with doing a spy adventure game. I think I’ve fixed them?

The first is that James Bond (who honestly didn’t come into my head until later, my first points of reference were The Man from UNCLE and Spy x Family and the less fashy Tintins) works alone. There are tons of workarounds to this though.

The obvious would be to ignore it and do a team narrative (Mission Impossible does this great already) but there are already RPGs that do this and it seemed a bit obvious. Since I had it in my head to focus on the agency over the agent, I could’ve done a Jason and the Argonauts with one OP character and their lackeys/support, but that just doesn’t seem fun to me. Given the option, everyone would want to be Bond.

So in DEADLINE, the GM role is fulfilled by the person playing the Agent. They have something called the LIFELINE system, an in-universe device that keeps them in constant contact with HQ. The players are still controlling the character in the exact same way they’d control adventurers in D&D, and the GM still has the same job - describe situation, players make decisions, describe how situation develops - so gameplay is exactly like a typical OSR or adventure type game. The only difference is how it’s couched in the fiction. The GM isn’t reporting on the situation as a semi-omniscient arbiter of the action but as the agent in the field, and the players aren’t making decisions as the characters in the field but as, in-fiction, semi-omniscient arbiters of the action.

I can’t quite picture how difficult or not this will be for players used to other games to get to grips with, but to my mind it’s pretty simple? “You enter a room, there’s a locked door” becomes “I’ve just entered the room, looks like there’s a locked door, over”. “I wanna try my lockpick on the door” becomes “Agent 99, you should have been outfitted with a lockpick for this mission, disguised as a fountain pen. Try it on the door.”

And LIFELINE being a Thing That Exists draws attention to the primary play mechanic of ttrpgs - communication. I hope this will encourage GMs and players to be more open and talk through descriptions and plans more, leading to better play! Also I hope changing “you have to be the GM” to “you get to be a cool spy” makes more people want to be GMs :D

The other Big Problem with playing an OSR game as James Bond, other than that there’s just one of him, is that he’s really good at everything. He has bad luck and loses fights, but he always wins overall, and his basic capabilities as a character far outstrip, say, a level 0 farmer in DCC. We never doubt the danger, but we also never doubt that he’ll succeed at anything he attempts. Not exactly “roll a d20 and see what happens” material.

OSR games enforce the playstyle I mentioned above - planning, creative problem solving, careful exploration - through not only making the world perilous, but the characters frail. A secret base under a volcano is a perilous dungeon, but Sean Connery is more than up to the task, removing that sense of threat and therefore the tension that necessitates an “adventure” playstyle.

I’m sure there are other ways to solve this, but in DEADLINE I decided to mechanise the concept of threat. This might seem abstract and game-y, but RPGs have been doing it from the start with HP - only HP focuses on physical threat. I took a leaf from GRAVEROBBERS, where Luck (“HP”) can be lost through the treat of being caught as well (it’s a stealth game), and in which any failed roll results in loss of Luck (thereby discouraging rolling and encouraging creativity, more on that here) and took it one step further.

Now, all rolls result in the game’s equivalent of HP loss, advancing the DOOMSDAY clock closer to failure (hit midnight and it’s game over, roll up a new agent). There are two big differences - you don’t know how far you’re going to advance the clock (that’s what the roll is for), and all rolls succeed.

In the fiction it’s abstracted as the Agent “falling back on their training”, basically the agency throwing their hands up and leaving it to Bond to do his thing (which literally matches what the players are doing! ludonarrative assonance, yum), who succeeds at the given task but in his own reckless, cool-guy way, which can alert attention or leave clues or otherwise jeopardise the mission. You can explore the area, find clues, investigate and devise a plan, all without rolling - or you can roll and hope for the best.

This puts the players firmly in the role of those folks back at HQ, trying desperately to find answers and keep the situation under control, with a highly skilled but strong-willed agent in the field enacting their orders - to the letter, if with a little flair. If you’ve seen any Bond movies, or any of the similar things I’m drawing from here, you’ll recognise the dynamic. I’m hoping players of DEADLINE will too.

Also, mechanising the threat means the Agent (GM) doesn’t have to stat enemies or anything, just make up a cool mission. That, and I’m going to give notes and a few random tables and whatnot - I foresee DEADLINE being very easy to run.

And, uh, that’s it? That’s almost the whole game mechanically, it’s very light, just how I like em. As I said I’m working on a draft rulebook, if you like the idea of this and want to see more then yell at me about it and I’ll oblige.

Stay tuned for more, I guess?

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Friday 7 August 2020

UFO Grab! Minimart Mischief

Hey folks!

Briefly raising my head from the BUTCHERY grindstone to let you know about the new Paradice Arcade game that just launched - UFO Grab! Download link riiiight here.

Check the tag for more info on Paradice - basically, these are my non-ttrpg games, and you can play all of them with just a pencil, 2d6 and some loose change. UFO Grab is a minigame, all on one page, for 1 or 2 players. Hope you enjoy it!

I’ve said more about this elsewhere, but I recently lost my day job due to COVID. Posts on here will be pretty much paused while I look for work, and other than the projects I’ve already got in the pipeline (like those mentioned above) I won’t be putting much stuff out for the foreseeable future.

If you can and would like to help me out a bit, consider getting this new game, or some of my other stuff maybe! Also you can hire me, business enquiries to graverobbersguide at the gmail dot the com.

Stay safe! Speak soon x