Campaign Notes

Words are hard. The Current Situation™ isn’t great for my head, and I’m finding it hard to write about anything else, and I really don’t think I need to add to the current covid chorus. So, here’s some stuff around how I put together an adventure for the Torg Eternity campaign I’m running.

Torg Eternity is a game where our world has been invaded by some other realities. Each new reality is overlayed on top of our existing world, and each one has slightly different narrative laws that change the mechanics of the game to encourage different styles of play. The Cyberpapacy is more of a Cyberpunky-Oppressed-Masses setting, The Living Land is high danger action world where you fight dinosaurs, but currently we’re playing in the Nile Empire, which basically Indiana Jones meets the original Stargate movie meets the golden age of comic books. High trope, high action, masks are magic and your identity is secure, the villain always gets his monologue off, etc.

DM Notes, Dice & Whiskey. The basic components of a session.

In this campaign, my players are looking for information about Terra, the original world of the Nile Empire that invaded this one, and they are finding the Mouseion, nine libraries based on the muses.

Today was the Terpsichorium, the library of dance. The dances of ancient Terra, recorded with Pulp Technology onto slates to be performed by enchanted mannequins, with special rooms to teach others how to perform them. Of course, when the player party tried to get into the service areas without permission, it activated the other programming of the mannequins, as is traditional.

And now, with mannequins pulling arms off themselves to batter the party with, the players hear the voice of the other thing Terpsichore is responsible for, traditionally. A Siren approaches.

I am, I admit, pushing at the edges of the Nile Empire’s pulp-ancient-egyptian setting. I’ve got some in-character justification for it, but in-character justification for being off-brief is very much the “Bob doesn’t have to do P.E today because he is ill. Signed Bob’s Mum” of roleplaying design.

In reality it’s because I spent a while mucking around with the more obscure edges of the ancient Middle Sea area when I was helping run Odyssey LRP. Stuff like the Mellified Man was the kind of left-field-yet-historical plot that left happy memories and weird google histories for years to come.

Duke Humfrey’s Library, Oxford. Bookspiration.

One Part Truth To Two Parts Lie

In this case, the Mouseion, or Musaeum, at Alexandria is the institution that the famous “Great Library” was said to have been part of. Now, it’s a thing that would be a university, a library, a museum (it’s where the word comes from) and a school of philosophy itself. It caught my imagination, the idea that the Great Library was only a part of something bigger, especially since the myth of the Great Library Of Alexandria Being Burned is so large a lie in our culture (in reality, it had been declining due to underfunding for a century before Julius Ceaser (accidentally) burnt part of it, and continued to drift apart until by the time it was burned down under papal decree, it was probably empty. It is an important lesson about the destruction of culture, just not the one it’s known for).

After that reality starts to be bent towards what I want to have happened in the invading reality of the Nile Empire. In this case, Alexander never invaded, so it’s still Rakote (A different transliteration of the more common Rhacotis), and the Mouseion is literally a set of Great Libraries dedicated to each one of the Muses.

In theoory, then there are nine of them. I don’t intend to use all of them, but it’s nice to have options. So I started with the Terpsichorium, the museum of dance. The idea is that each museum is specifically built by an ancient and technologically advanced (though in an ancient and magic way) civilisation to maintain their culture for what they hoped to be forever. How do you make sure the dance of your culture is kept alive.

This is where the mannequins came in. The dances are all stored in books and scrolls, with careful descriptions and diagrammed steps. But they couldn’t be sure the language would last, so they used a form of storage and enchanted mannequins that could perform the moves, and even teach humanoids how to perform them. Magic dance studios with walls that look like mirrors, with mannequins that know the moves and guide you from place to place.

In Which We Turn Lore Into Game

The Nile Empire symbol

The mannequins come to life idea was so tropey that it was irresistible – the Nile Empire setting in Torg is built for this kind of adventure – and moving faceless human bodies is so obvious even Doctor Who knocks on the fourth wall before it uses it these days. But this only happens if the characters try to get though into the “private” part of the museum, a door clearly labeled “Please Knock” which – in a complete afterthought on the designer’s part – is only in their language. Never did it really occour to them that there wouldn’t be someone there to run the place, to turn off the security system.

And, indeed, there is.

In this case, the mannequins just keep coming – new ones arriving from the basement to replenish the ones they kill, the song of the Siren gradually luring them somewhere they don’t know yet, until the one person who can read the ancient language sees the sign on the door:

“Please Knock”

So they do, and everything is still. Except for the siren’s song, which still pulls them towards the basement. Session ends.

So the adventure comes together, a collection of tropes based on something I half remembered from a LRP I helped run half a decade ago, plus some basic research for a framework, and some papier-mâché over that, all of which kicks heavily on the big Arc Themes of the campaign. But I’m not going to talk about those until the players get there, which might take a while.



I’ve been trying to write this post for a week. I wrote part of everything as a frothy public facebook post, but I wanted to line up my thoughts and put them down in a proper post for this. A thing for the ages.

I am immensely proud of being part of Odyssey. I am happy with my contribution to the game in a way that transcends my usual armour-plated self-deprecation. As front-facing as I am, I get more credit than I deserve for the work of the entire team.

Odyssey was a very opinionated game. Unapologetically gameist in design, with almost unbreachable class walls that dictated what skills you had and what areas of the game you could play. A hard-fought policy of never retconning player experience, rather changing our entire metaphysic to accommodate a screwup than undo the roleplay and stories around it. A written, understood metaphysic – in Powerpoint format as well – that we could reduce problems down to and attempt to keep consistency.

The lack of any character advancement, the ability to entirely respec your character class between any events, the impermanence of death (and, later, the ability to bring your dead characters back into the story), and beyond everything the belief that whatever the players did, we should react to that and continue the story, not try and drag it back to what we were planning.

I did none of that. I built some things on it, and I helped it appear in the field, but I did it standing on the shoulders of some giants of storytelling, of system design, of LARP theory.

In Mimir (now Online for exploration and the code open for use or contribution) I built some systems to help it run more smoothly, and running the ref-desk to put a friendly if lightly sarcastic public face on interactions with the universe in general. Save a few screwups, I think I did fairly well. My natural tendency to over-analyse decisions I’ve made is countered by the fact that few people are actually complaining about any of them.

I’ve heavy opinions about some of the things in Odyssey. There’s bits in the system I wouldn’t advise building on, there’s bits in the way the systems work backstage that I’d certainly recommend for the future, and somewhere there’s a long article about my opinions on running a ref-desk that I should finish. Plus, there’s the short article about using Excel to keep track of things in a live game.

Here is the short article about using Excel to keep track of things in a live game:

Don’t use Excel to keep track of things in a live game if more than one person needs to do so.

But right now I’m finding it a bit hard to let go, to be honest. The idea that there’s no more left to do on it – I’ll update with stats and more briefs, but there’s no actual writing left – is a little alien to me. Plus, there’s been a tornado of froth about the event, and about the system, on my social streams pretty much non-stop since the week before the event happened. I’ve got one more froth meet booked to attend – Thursday in Birmingham – but after that I think I’ll take some steps back. I’ve got between two and four LARP events left this year – Empire in a couple of weeks, Slayers after that, then maybe some Empire player-run events.

I’ve got projects to pick up too. could do with some attention, as could this site. I’ve got a couple of months if I want to rewrite NanoCountdown before November, and there’s this Trajectory system that’s looking more and more plausible to run. And a book to write.

Onwards and awaywards, then. Time to put Odyssey to bed and move on with the next thing.

Time Out.

(header image by Charlotte Moss)



Game On

In 9 weeks, 79 hours, it will all be over.

In 79 hours, this one will be over.

But in 34 hours, Odyssey 12 – The Golden Ram – will begin.

There are over 150 plot threads going out this event. That doesn’t include battles, continuing tensions, a metric fuckton of IC relationships and drama, over 200 player status effects, dozens of magical scrolls of fathomable power, fated artefacts of various levels of mystery and mayhem. It does include the largest shakeup of our central mechanics since we started, and a number of interesting ways to affect and effect the end of the world. It doesn’t include the things the players will think up that we’ll jump to react to, the swerves and tight cornering of steering a massive vehicle on a steep downhill slope.

That the final game is coming up is a distraction. A large looming distraction on the horizon, a terrifying responsibility to stick the landing of a years-long project. But tomorrow we have this game to run first, and this game to run well, so we have a landing to stick. A team of awesome, dedicated people who will go to incredible lengths to make this work the best we can.

Game on.


Mimir and the tyranny of things that just about work

So this is about LARP, but also about systems and process. Bare with me, it might get a bit long.

I had pretty much no interest in Odyssey when it started. My first introduction to it was when a group of friends was invited to a test of the combat system a year or so before Event 1, and since LARP Combat really isn’t my thing, I passed. I knew some friends were involved in writing story, but I hadn’t seen anything that wasn’t caught up in the arena stuff, and I was kind of wrapped up in my head a bit anyway. After E1, everyone I knew who played was frothing about this wonderful game, and everyone I knew who crewed was drinking heavily to forget. After some discussions with the latter about ways the game might go better next time I sent an email to PD saying I’d like to join the story team, and eventually became a ref instead.

At the second event, I spent friday evening wandering around the field in my brand new boots, and Saturday morning through to sunday afternoon unable to walk. I became desk-ref by invalid status, and started being the point of contact for story related questions that came to the ref desk. Over the next few events I started to make suggestions as well as ask questions for players, became a member of story team proper, got given a Head Ref title, and generally did my best for Odyssey.

The most annoying thing about the first few Odysseys was the Kudos tracker, which is the system the game uses to keep track of money sacrificed to the Gods and other worthy personages. From Event 2 though to around Event 5 it was a spreadsheet on a shared drive, and because the front desk needed to add things to it, and Story needed to add things to it and make calculations based off it, we were forever shouting at each other, because having it open in Excel or Libreoffice on one computer meant nobody else could write to it. Eventually, I decided this problem wasn’t one that would fix itself, and basically wrote a really simple PHP/MySQL app that did what the spreadsheet did, only with multiple users. This was the first version of Mimir, the Odyssey game management system. Next event I added a blogging platform, so every NPC in the game has a little blog where they write down what happened to them, so the story team can see what’s going on. Also it doubles as a notes area to keep track of “These characters did this thing” in a way that doesn’t result in a thousand tiny doc files stored locally on one of a dozen PCs.

There it lay for a couple of years. It worked well enough, and adding the next big thing to it would take ages, and I never got around to it.

Oh, but I wish I had.

For the first event last year I finally added the promised feature of “Blessings” – always with the scare quotes – that tracks special effects on any given player. From being blessed by Jupiter to strike down foes with thunderbolts, to the secret abilities of the Zodiac Council, to the curse of Dionysus on the guy who stole his drink; Blessings in Odyssey are one of the key interactions and effects that Story will give out.

And they were an absolute arse to maintain.

The first version of a system was an Excel workbook. One sheet was a table of blessings, the second a designed form where if you put the primary key of the blessing in a special place it would generate a pretty form you could print. This was single user, broke if you opened it in Libreoffice, and just about worked. For a couple of years it was another spreadsheet that was used as a data source by an access database that generated PDFs of blessings you could print, and that just about worked… and it all worked enough that there wasn’t really an impetus to replace the system, but enough that every interaction with the system (which was the same for Greater Mysteries – big spells – and Artifacts – Item information sheets) caused a slight uptick in everyone’s stress levels.

At Event 9 it all went to fuck.

A perfect storm of a series of mistargeted blessings going out that absolutely fucked up someone’s event, a block of blessings going entirely missing because they were using the wrong version of the spreadsheet and a set of lower-impact minor bad blessings that were just not game improving; joined forces with a period of time where the only laptop that could generate the blessings couldn’t be accessed… it just all fell over. For the remainder of the event blessings were not allowed out unless one of Me (Head Ref), Ian Andrews (Head of Story) or Si Brind (Lead Si Brind) had physically signed them. The event itself went well, all the players were happy (save the ones who got screwed over), but this needed to be fixed.

This is the problem with things that Just About Work, be they inherited processes or systems, applications or relationships with people. They’re not, none of them, going to one day get better. They’re either going to slowly grind to a halt, or they’re going to go off like a firework in someone’s face; and in this case the face was a player who didn’t even _nearly_ deserve it.

You'd be surprised by how many Greek blessings are for reasons of caprice. Or maybe not.
You’d be surprised by how many Greek blessings are for reasons of caprice. Or maybe not.

Over autumn I wrote some entity relationship diagrams, over winter I wrote some user interface, over spring I wrote the code to make the interface work and regretted using a home-built framework for it. By event 10 – first event 2015 – I had a system that could import the old spreadsheet and turn it into a modernish web interface with a three-point approvals system, print queue and (the bit that hurt the most) PDF generation of any player’s blessings on demand.

In an exceedingly complimentary post, Ian credits this addition with making last event go so smoothly from back-end side. I’m less convinced it was just – or even mostly – that, this is a really good team and it was working like oiled clockwork last season, but it almost certainly did help, and reduced stress levels a great deal, as well as prep time for next event.

I suspect the moral of this story is something like “There’s always time to create better tools” (there isn’t), or “The right tool in the right place and you can move the world with your thumb” (Which is, but finding “Right” is almost impossible). Mostly, I think it’s “Make better things, and things will be better”.

It’s also “Come to Odyssey”, but you knew that.

Anyway, source for Mimir will be released after the last event (it has some spoilers in it), though data won’t. The data will be used to make some pretty graphs to show, though.

Computer Games Larp PHP Projects

Week 27 – A Blunderbuss For House Hunting

Last couple of weeks have been a little hectic, and the next couple seem to continue this trend. So:


Shifted to a new primary project at work for the first time in quite a while. Enjoying new challenges, and a more modern codebase to work from. My side of Skute has wound down a bit while others fan the spark a bit, which gives me a chance to plan the next bits for the API.


Still going though SWTOR, mostly. I’ve not had a lot of playtime.


Moving House

We have the keys to the new flat, big move is this weekend. We moved a few dozen boxes yesterday (Thanks Dan & Jenny for being awesome). Between that and Odyssey, I’m mildly dead now.


I’m a head ref for Odyssey, and work closely with the Story team to help everything go smoothly, and one of the things that didn’t go smoothly last time was our “Blessings” system – the system by which we add reactionary special statuses to characters (Blessings from their Gods, Curses, Long term effects of magic spells, transformation into bloodless monsters, Roleplay effects, Extra hitpoints, everything). Previously we worked with a somewhat Heath-Robinson contraption built of Excel and Access-based PDF generation.

Previously, I built a system called Mimir, which tracks the kudos priests and other characters can earn with their gods. We’re a more narrative-based than stats-based game, so the numbers get fudged a lot, but it’s a decent guideline. It’s also got a fairly fully-featured blogging engine, which is for debriefs.

Screenshot from 2015-08-12 15-45-00_croppedMy last couple of weeks not-working time has been spent extending and expanding that a lot. Folding in an Autocomplete library that linked to the current list of active players and the Blessing system (complete with three-stage approval process and player-facing PDF generation), and then a general once-over on the design has swallowed a lot of my coding time.

When I built it originally a few years ago, I built it in PHP (because I wanted to be able to make quick changes on the fly during an event) using a custom lightweight microframework, and Idiorm/Paris as the database/ORM model. I’m slightly surprised how well that’s held up. I didn’t need to edit the framework at all for this major revision, and Idiorm & Paris worked really well for me. The frontend’s built in Bootstrap, which gives me style without much effort – though I do need to bite the bullet and shift up to v3 – and I’ll be releasing it as Open Source once Odyssey is over, alongside graphs and statistics generated from the actual dataset.

I should put up another post later on about how well Odyssey went, but now I should be getting ready for work.

(Header photo: A Greek Shield Wall, at Odyssey. Photo by Charlotte Moss for Profound Decisions)

Personal Projects

Week 25 – The Working Progress

August is shaping up to be a busy month.

Work ramped up, both sides of the coin, after a time-bomb screwup I made several weeks ago suddenly got trodden on, and the other side hit deadline week. Trying to keep on top of both sides of that has been tricky, especially as this month I’m basically going full-time with what was originally supposed to be my temporary part-time contract, and is now tracked to last at least a year…

Odyssey is getting really quite close (it’s the 14th), and my sole contribution to the non-uptime bits, in the form of a new system to track Blessings/Curses and other Involuntary Special States, is nearly on track. The weekend’s task was to get PDF generation of blessings working, and from there printing, so I’ve sunk a few hours into that. The PDFs are being generated, although the text and design’s not quite there yet. Task for this week’s evenings is to finish that up, and import the existing blessings list.

Project Move-To-Oxford proceeds apace. We’ve now got the place, but are in an unusal limbo position while it’s repainted and the various ducks swim into alignment for the actual move to happen. I’m already pulling in previous move’s lists of people to contact and things that need to be done, but a lot of them have this massive overhanging dependency, so I can plan all I like, I can’t do anything yet…

Because the thing that I need now is a new, additional hobby for the remaining seconds in the day when I’m not already doing things, I’ve taken my occasional experiments in blending and infusing alcohol a step further into actually brewing things. I’ve got an article on my first batch of beer in a semi-finished state, and now I’ve also got a jug of mead merrily farting away in the dark corner of the kitchen.

For a friend’s birthday party I also dug out my traditional Cheesecake recipe, and revised and updated it with ten years experience making it. I even made a label to put beside it so people could see what was in it, and then entirely forgot to take it with me. So it’s presented here, where it can be entirely useless forever.



…which has, in general, been a week of text editors and trips to Oxford, and I’ve not been playing very much. However, I did declare “Sod it all” last night for a decent session of GTAV and then get distracted by Sims for a while (House moving always makes me want to play Sims, it makes life look so much neater).


I am in the middle of a field, in a tent.

While a man dressed as Annubis watches

While I fix a printer so that

A blessing of Nemisis can be given

To a champion of Greece who

Died fighting the forces of Persia while

King Minos watched on.

Later the Champion will arrive at my desk in another tent, after his God granted him one last day of Glory.

And over two hundred other players will never know any of this,

But will have their own stories for this ten minutes

Instead and

As well.