Pokémon Take Back The Night in Cheltenham?

It was about 2.30pm yesterday and a beautiful sunny  afternoon; I was walking along Cheltenham High Street when I first noticed the two elegantly dressed, seemingly normal women. They were in their 30’s I guess, and as they approached I suddenly realised something was wrong. I looked again – businesswomen perhaps, enjoying a late lunch? And then I realised, and my blood ran cold — neither of them had their phones out. THEY WERE NOT PLAYING POKEMON! I thought of taking a picture to prove that deviants like this still exist, but then I thought no, shaming weirdos is wrong. They probably have not even noticed that everyone else in the town centre is trying to throw balls at a Drowsee, collect their fiftieth Ratata of the day  or excitedly gossiping about rumours of a Pikachu seen at Proud Lion the games shop…

machopsYes, I actually was surprised to see two women NOT playing Pokémon. Cheltenham’s only rpg and games convention Grand Tribunal is two weeks off (come along – tickets from www.grandtribunal.org ), and maybe by then the obsession will have wound down. Right now though this is the Summer of Pokémon, and I expect our grandchildren will laugh at pictures of our silly fashions and primitive games, as we smile at photos of the Haight-Ashbury in ’67. In Cheltenham at least, it seems EVERYONE is playing Pokémon

So there can be very few people who have not heard of Pokémon now, the game you play by running around with your phone frantically throwing balls at imaginary creatures. In the very best tradition of Moral Panics since time began the press are whipping up a frenzy with stories ranging from the person who found a body in a river to the teens who got lost in caves while apparently playing Pokémon, not forgetting the pair who walked off a cliff while playing. They obviously had not been paying attention to the loading screen, which shows a player engrossed in their phone about to walk off a jetty while a huge sea monster lurks hungrily, and has a clear warning to pay attention to your environment at all times!

Anyway these stories are not great, because the game is thin gruel for Moral Panic stirrers. The thing is pretty harmless, and while it may have been condemned by a few religious types as ‘occult’ it seems to most simply a kid’s cartoon fantasy game, daft but cheerful and unlikely to scar anyone. Yes a few of the Pokéstops where you collect them may have ended up in inappropriate places, and yes some kids will do daft things. There is just no scandal here. If you get lost in a cave looking for Pokémon you are not so bright anyway, given the game a) works in 2D – being up or down makes no difference to collecting and b) you need a mobile phone signal, and how many cave systems you know have wifi or mobile reception? And if you have a mobile phone and either, how did you get lost? One of my friends points out the cave system in question has geocaches – that is far more likely how that one happened. Pokémon is just getting attention because it is new and hip or whatever the kids say nowadays.IMG_2016-07-17-11280977

So as a games designer, do I think it is any good? Yep. I was working on a ghost based GPS concept in augmented reality, and have been running persistent (real world real time) LARPS for  over 20 years, but this has impressed me. There are a few serious design glitches about the way power escalation works, that should have been obvious at design stage but I need to  play more to see if there are hidden answers to these apparent pitfalls. The game has deeply inadequate obvious documentation, but in a way learning to play, finding the help files and then learning strategies off other players is in itself fun. Anyway that’s not what I’m talking about today.

I suffer from problems with heat regulation, and can’t go out much in the current heatwave scorching town. The last few nights however Becky and I have wandered in to town, to catch pokémon. And you know what? We are now alone!  I have never seen town as busy. Perhaps it is the heat – yet Thursday night had a light rain, and there were still scores of us out walking around. From ten pm through till half two I have been out there, catching Pokémon, and so have probably hundreds of others, of all ages, from maybe 12 to  late 60’s.

Now town is not as busy as it was when I was younger, and half the clubs have closed down. The students are away on Summer vacation, and in Cheltenham that is a huge number. Even so I have seen so many people on the streets that I even risked St.Mary’s churchyard at midnight, and ducked down dark alleys like the one to Cheltenham Chapel and the Elephant Mural up by LIDL. I have walked kilometres – I know as I need to to hatch the eggs I collected in game, and talked to quite a few other players. Mostly though we just nod, or gather around benches, occasionally exclaiming as we run out of balls or a strange creature runs by.

I have felt a few times intimidated by drunks, or a couple of lary lads walking passed us near Dancing Ken’s in the early hours, but mainly I have felt safer than I have in years. I live in a pretty sketchy part of town, by the Lower High Street, and have to pass the junkies and alcoholics every night clustered around the shops, but Cheltenham is actually pretty safe, and we have a good community spirit round here. I regard it as dodgy – but actually the students walk through it every night oblivious to danger,and come to no harm, which says to me there isn’t much?

Now however, the town centre at least is transformed. Young women walk alone with their phones not on an emergency number but on the map,  giggling girls wander round in pairs hunting down Goldeens and Magikarp, and crowds of respectfully quiet adults stand about statues, outside churches and in every public space. From the viewpoint of crime you would have thought this was amazing – a mugger can steal loads of phones – but when you have this many people on the streets, even the most vulnerable folks are suddenly a lot safer. If anyone screamed out there, a hundred ears would hear them, and everyone would come running or more likely call police on their (ready, to hand) cell phones.


Becky says it just feels safer out there.

It was Becky who first pointed it out – she just felt much safer. Busy streets are safe streets, and people playing Pokémon are not drunk, loud or intimidating. I repeat – I have seen young women alone walking around town in freedom well after midnight and apparently unconcerned, standing about catching Pokémon, and feeling safe.

So whatever you think about Pokémon, it has done something unintended but as  wonderful or magical as any Snorlax dozing in your garden for a little while – it has taken back the night and made our cities safer places to be after dark. Long may it continue! Oh and the businesswomen I saw? I realised soon after they had passed me – batteries must have run out. Happens, even to me. Now excuse me, I gotta catch ’em all!

CJ, July 2016







Posted in Debunking myths, Fun forthcoming events, Games, Reviews and Past Events, Social commentary desecrated, Student Life in Cheltenham, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Review: The New Ghostbusters Movie; or I ain’t fraid o no film!


[tl:dr: great film go see it]

It all started with a moving candlestick flying across a room; that was how I got involved with the girly ghosthunter, who is now a parapsychologist with a Ph.D in apparitional experience. And today I took her to the cinema to see the new Ghostbusters movie, which starts with a flying candlestick, and leads one in to the world of female ghostbusters. It seems rather appropriate.

Many years ago I met Becky on a ghost night I was staffing for Richard Felix when she said she saw a candle fly across a corridor and strike the wall – that led to a correspondence, then we became friends, she started working with us, did her MSc in Parapyschology and Transpersonal Psychology at Coventry Uni and then her Ph.D in A Century of Apparitions, looking in detail at what people report happens when they experience a ghost. I think


My girlfriend Dr. Smith, a real parapsychologist I guess. PhD in Ghosts!

Becky is a bit to academic for the press – no one seemed interested in talking to her, and she failed to get tickets to the launch, but there are a lot of other women in parapsychology. I don’t think Hannah Gilbert, Madeleine Castro, Ann Winsper, Hayley Stevens, Mary Rose Barrington, Patricia Robertson, Nicky Sewell, Val Hope or any of the others – and I have just named a handful from the UK – did either. Maybe because Ghostbusters is such an American thing?  One of the new ghostbusters is called Hotzmann, and of course than made me think of Alexandra Holzer, daughter of Hans Holzer. I don’t know Alexandra personally but I hope it is a tribute to her. One of the great things about parapsychology and ghost research is women have been from Catherine Crowe in the 19th century onwards often at the forefront of it.

So I’m dating a female ghost expert, and Dr Becky and I went to see the movie. Now at this point I should note that I myself hesitate to lay claim to expertise about spooks, but I may know a little more than is common. You can read my thoughts here. However I am absolutely not a film critic, having only ever watched maybe 30 films, and perhaps half a dozen at the cinema. My favourite films are Dr. Strangelove, Kindhearts and Coronets, The Producers and if pushed The Magnificent Seven. My taste in such matters is not to be relied upon.

Furthermore actual knowledge of real world spooks is not helpful when considering the Ghostbusters films. The ectoplasmic entities of the film are pure fantasy – and they bear absolutely no resemblance to anything from the Census of Hallucinations or related case collections. Ghostbusters is a wild and fantastic take on spooks – and yet the central premise, that spooks are paranormal not supernatural entities, and obey (unknown at start) naturalistic Laws of Physics which allow for technological solutions to the spooks in the form of PKE meters, proton packs and lots of hi-tech gadgetry is one shared with the Parapsychological discourse, and quite separate from most religious or Spiritualist interpretations of ghosts. Anyway, whereas the original Ghostbusters were clearly in the mould of parapsychologists, the new female incarnations are experimental physicists, and the film is replete with sciencey sounding technobabble. (This may be the films greatest weakness – spooks are simply malign, with only one old friend from a previous film being allowed any degree of characterisation or personality – and having acquired a girlfriend. These are hungry dead, stripped of any link to the humans they were. The chief villain is an exception too – but even he is never really more than a two dimensional psychopath. The ghosts of  the Ghostbusters franchise are really just monsters who need blowing up, not discarnate human beings…

You see – that’s what goes wrong! I forget the plot and get absorbed in the spooks. And where the new Ghostbusters is concerned that is a serious mistake.


Now – the women. They are superb. I like women, and make no apologies for liking the new team as much as I liked the old one. I think the accusations of racism levelled at the film are misjudged – seeing a Black working class character in the film was fine, just as there was diversity in the White cast, but I am not in a position to speak for Black women.. I thought the four core team members were all very different, and very very good. The massive campaign of hate that preceded the film based on the fact it was a reboot (or is it a sequel : you can read it either way) struck me as totally misjudged. I did not watch the trailers – but I rate the film as certainly better than  Ghostbusters 2 – but I rate a bout of norovirus in the middle of a hot date as probably preferable to watching Ghostbusters 2 again. GBteam 2

I remember, many many years ago, walking to school along Fornham Road in Bury St Edmunds and seeing a poster with what I know now to be a Ghostbusters logo on a bus shelter. I had no idea about the film in those pre-internet days, and certainly no intention of watching it. I had no idea it was a film. “Coming to save the world”the tag line read – I assumed it was some kind of cult. A few weeks later I was sitting in St. John’s Place reading The Haunter of the Dark by H.P.Lovecraft in my grandmothers garden, casting occasional glances at the louvre boards of St. John’s steeple, when my sister Ingrid arrived.  She took me to see this new film Ghostbusters, and i was not that keen – I wanted to read – but within minutes I was transfixed


I thought it was a GREAT film – not just good, but brilliant. My criticism has remained solid for thirty years – it starts so well, and then it becomes more and more fantastic and outrageous, and finally ends in silliness. My favourite bits are the first Act, where they are setting up, being thrown out of the university, and building their business. Ans yes it is a Thatcherite/Reaganite wet dream – small business entrepreneurs face off against Evil government bureaucrats from the Environmental Protection Agency and leave a useless Public Sector to achieve greatness by capitalism “no fee to big; no job too small. Perhaps its really sending up rags to riches films – whatever the case, I love this film, and so do many other people and I can imagine they will be angry at me for critiquing it. The fact when I first saw it I was doing my O Levels (old people speak for GCSEs) has enshrined it in my heart as a forever golden classic.

Now of course none of the Ghostbusters franchise can ever be as roll on the floor till I nearly choke laughing so hard funny as The Exorcist, which may be among the funniest films I have ever watched. Still Ghostbusters 3 of whatever they are calling it is maybe 70% great, 20% OK and 10% weak. This is a solid 8 out of 10 to me.

So the good: the casting, the shot but shot remake feel of the first half yet never actually doing that – if you have watched the latest Star Wars movie, it has the same relation to Star Wars: A New Hope as this film has to Ghostbusters. It often cleverly adopts a visual cue, a scene or a trope from the original film, then puts a spin on it. At times it seems very self aware – the jokes about the firestation costing too much, the explanation as to why they drive a hearse, the Ghostbusters logo design – even how they come to name themselves Ghostbusters. Mostly though this shows up in the references to online trolls, comments and critics – and most spectacularly in the closing scene where the line “That was not so terrible” caused a real laugh in context of all the hate the movie has provoked.originalGB

Also very good are the constant references to ghost pop culture that has developed since the original films. There is a nod to the Most Haunted etc style of paranormal programming when they see a snatch of a show called “Ghost Jumpers” and are outraged – and there is a villain who is a skeptic and debunker who reminded me more than a little of James Randi in his younger days. The physicists have replaced the parapsychologists and knowing psychical research in-jokes of the original movie which even references a very little known element from the Enfield  Poltergeist case -I wonder how many of you can spot that one?  It’s a name and is mentioned in Guy Lyon Playfair’s This House is Haunted. Oh OK, the name Gozer was given my a medium as the name of the “wicked black magic chap” she said haunted the Green Street house). From the viewpoint of an SPR member it is probably not as satisfying for those reasons.

Also the physics and technology has changed. The ghost containment device is only invented at the end, along with the ghost trap. Yes they fire beams from backpack nuclear reactors, but one never hears of a warning about crossing the streams and bizarrely “unlicensed particle accelerators” have been replaced by  “nuclear lasers”, and total protonic reversal and destruction of all life is no longer highlighted in this day of public fears about CERN – and guess vacuum collapse is not something I want to laugh about – but ther eis a mention of I think total positronic reversal at one point in a fire fight. And yes, and this is one of the weaknesses – the film becomes an action movie for the last third – a pretty, high powered, colourful and fun action movie, but still a special FX and loud explosions kind of shebang, which is really not my thing at all. Worst of all, they now basically shoot ghosts, rather than capturing them and containing them in a trap. This means you can have big budget shoot ’em up sequences, but its not as much fun, and means the film is way more violent and involves bigger and bigger spooks for diminishing returns.

It turns out that the explanation for why the ghost tech has been developed twice is that one of the characters wrote a book about it years ago – but the whole film males more sense if you assume the events of Ghostbusters 1 & 2 actually occurred, and were suppressed by the Mayor’s Office. The book provides a way of downplaying that element, but all but one (Murray’s) of the cameos make sense perfectly if you assume this is a sequel set in the same universe.

The cameos were fun; I won’t spell them out here, but only one person was missing as sadly Harold Ramis died recently. I  did not notice an In Memory of Harold Ramis notice on the film credits or opening titles anywhere – I’m not sure why not, as one would have expected that. Perhaps the poor expectations of the film led to it being felt best to leave that off? Bill Murray appears with the largest cameo – but my favourite was the part played by Dan Akroyd. This clearly shows my future career prospects I suspect, if I can learn to drive… ghost

The soundtrack is also better than the original movie using only the famous main theme throughout but with different versions and to good effect. (Watch Ghostbusters  again – much of the music is not so good). There are little homages to the 80’s like Debarge’s Rhythm of the Night, and a bit of gross humour. The end gets lost in special effects, and one character Kevin is just a bit annoying – could have been handled better – but improves as the film progresses. The villain looks great and was rather charming, and — look go see it.

The films weakness is not enough time is spent on the characters, rather than on Special FX and action, and the plot (more Doctor Who or pulp meets H.P.Lovecraft than classic ghost story as normal for the franchise) isn’t as engaging as the original. The bimbo male secretary eye candy idiot is annoying, but maybe that is making a Feminist point. It’s a shame because Janine never fulfilled that stereotype, so there was no reason to reverse it here  — but my housemate Lisa just went to see Tarzan  simply ‘cos the main actor is hot, so let us not underestimate the importance of pretty boys as visual appeal.

I often see a film and love it, and then see it again when it is on TV and really don’t enjoy it – The Full Monty is a classic example – but I’m hoping this one will be a keeper. Clearly there will be a sequence, and you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs – but ZUUL! Becky loved the film too, so put aside your prejudices, go watch it, and I think you might have a great couple of hours.

CJ x





Posted in Paranormal, Reviews and Past Events, Social commentary desecrated, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Cthulhu, Fresh Flowers & Supermarket Shopping in Bury St Edmunds

“West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight. On the gentle slopes there are farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages brooding eternally over old New England secrets in the lee of great ledges; but these are all vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs.”

H.P. Lovecraft, The Colour Out of Space

Northwest of Bury St Edmunds stands Tollgate Hill, its low slopes blanketed by the neat avenues of the Mildenhall and Howard council estates, now largely privately owned I suspect. Due north of Bury the River Lark meanders through watermeadow and across golf course before it passes an ancient prehistoric cursus. Alan Murdie has written of this area, where I lived as a toddler and again as a teen as one with a  considerable haunted heritage in a recent  Fortean Times article, and of course the Lark Valley was the site for the Battle of Fornham in 1173, a subject to which I often return.

Even before I moved to Bury we used to come here though, for off Mildenhall Road, backing on to the Lark and the remains of a long forgotten mural bridge is a supermarket. As a teen I rafted on the river, inexpertly dug by the medieval bridge  – there is a midden there, filled with thousands of oyster shells, for oysters were the common food – the fish and chips if you like – of medieval life – and fell down the steep banks lined with nettles by the weir.

None of those things matter today – it is the supermarket that holds my attention. I rode there as I have now for forty years in the back of my parents car; mum had forgotten to buy milk, and despite having visited ASDA and Sainsburys, she wanted some things from the CoOp. It seems bizarre this place has a name — it should be The Nameless Supermarket, because it really is like something out of a weird tale. This had never struck me before, but as I clambered out in to the car park there may have been three other vehicles in the acres of cracked tarmac.

Now it is a Co Op; before I think a Safeways, a Gateways, perhaps a Somerfields? It may have once been a Keymarkets — the name changes, but the building endures. You always enter to a bright display of fresh flowers, the local papers and a range of magazines, and wander round the aisles filled to the brim with low cost and well laid out produce. Pop music blares out from the speakers, you quickly find your purchases and walk past cheerful and very helpful assistants, usually young, who seem to wait politely , hovering in case you express a need to locate macaroni or boot polish or a lawnmower.

Once or twice, you may round a corner and suddenly pause, face reddening slightly embarrassed by the sight of another customer. You both smile weakly, and nod, the way you might if you met your vicar in a sex shop — but really it is just surprise. I mean you know there must be other customers — the shop has been here forty odd years, and the levels of stock suggest they sell something — but I am always amazed to find one. There are about ten checkout counters, and the cigarette desk, and sometimes you see a little gaggle of shoppers chatting around that counter, their backs firmly turned to the empty acres of retail desert behind them.

This is the supermarket on the edge of forever – and if the staff are the earthbound wraiths of retail assistants too happy to leave their jobs in this world when they inadvisedly removed a can of beans from the bottom of a warehouse stack or were squished by a badly timed delivery of 16,000 oranges, well it would not surprised me. They all seem happy – if you approach one of the rows of empty checkouts with a trolley, they race past you to open up, and I have never known such a happy, courteous and benign group of shop assistants anywhere. Perhaps they are just moved to curiosity by the sight of a customer?


There is no photo on the internet of the Mildenhall Road CoOp – and fittingly, the one I tried to take did not work but came out showing only my parents in the car. This may be down to my being crap at taking photos though, but it does make me wonder if I imagined the supermarket! Anyway it is behind this building, now flats but in the 19th century Dunnell’s Maltings.

When we went there this weekend, Becky pointed out it would be easy to miss the turning – there isn’t even a sign. Mum swore this remains the cheapest (and best) supermarket in Bury, and I don’t doubt her. I like ASDA, and Sainsburys, but both have long been discovered by the general public who spoil the mystique of those (perfectly adequate) supermarkets by shopping there. Somehow, the Mildenhall Road supermarket stays in profit and open without crowds of customers?  You’d never get service like this in Waitrose I tell you!

As I walked around the shop, I suddenly realised even the music was in a  time warp – they were playing Suede, that seems modern to me but is probably older than many of the shop assistants. An air of unreality descended on me, and I began to wonder if this was some sort of  Mystic Bazaar from outside of time and space, and the more I thought of it the more likely it seemed. It has always sold the most eccentric things, alongside the rows of perfectly good groceries. There is no logic to it – it seems to change, but specials appear and disappear. Here one day was a selection of wargames, and I bought Harpoon, a rather good naval wargame that even specialist games shops might have looked hard for – not a boardgame as such but a sophisticated  set of modern naval warfare rules.

Back in those days H.P.Lovecraft was out of print in the UK – yet one day there appeared a display of maybe two dozen cheap paperbacks, mainly Dr Who titles, and among them was The Shadow Over Innsmouth and other Tales of Terror by Scholastic Book Services, and American publisher. This was 3 years before Grafton reissued the old Pan series of HPL, and here for fifty pence I found this book that was to shape my life in many ways,, juts a few hundred feet from home. Of course within a week or two there were no more boardgames, or books – but time and time again, odd things would appear on these supermarket shelves, and would be snatched and for a few coins borne home as treasures.

Is there something weird about the supermarket? Is it is a money laundering front for the Co Op Dairy’s secret numbers game? Do the aisles form non-Euclidean angles and at midnight open portals to other spaces and times? Does the manager just have an eye for interesting remaindered stock and a lovely well trained staff who enjoy working there? Tesco on the Fornham Road may have a poltergeist outbreak and a bomb scare, but it does not come close to this place.  The Co Op Mildenhall Road Bury St Edmunds has endured while a rash of other supermarkets have gown up around the town, and I confidently expect that when I am as old as my father it will still be there, selling excellent fresh bread and cut flowers and with staff falling over themselves to assist.

I hope some of you will pop in, and let me know what you think. 🙂

CJ, Valentine’s Day 2016 x








Posted in Reviews and Past Events, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life | 1 Comment

The Quest for the Historical Harry Price

Yes, it’s been a while. I find writing about most things nowadays superfluous – people can become absurdly well informed by reading Wikipedia, and people like me belong to an irrelevant generation of people who hoarded books and knowledge the 21st century has made academic in every sense. 😉 Very occasionally though my book collection  becomes briefly relevant, and in my bedroom on a bookcase mainly littered with empty cat food boxes and partly collapsed showing where my DIY skills are sadly lacking, is half a shelf of books on Harry Price and Borley Rectory.


BENTLEY PRODUCTIONS FOR ITV HARRY PRICE : GHOST HUNTER Pictured: RAFE SPALL as Harry Price and CARA THEOBALD as Sarah Grey ( a sort of fictional mix of Kathleen Goldney and Lucy Kay(e)?. Photographers Matt Frost and Robert Viglasky. This Picture is the copyright of ITV/Bentley Productions and must only be used in relation to Harry Price:Ghost Hunter. I figure this meets that criteria?

A lot of ink has been spilled on these subjects – Babbs, Banks, Mayerling, Tabori, Dingwall, Brazil, Wood, Hall, and many more– but I’m noved to write tonight a very brief piece for the non-subject specialist, for the person who actually don’t know much about dear old Harry.  I’m writing this for people who have watched and enjoyed the new Harry Price show on ITV tonight (I must admit I haven’t watched it, as I don’t really do fiction and it is a fictional treatment of Harry) and who want a discussion of who he was and why he mattered that is a bit more lively than his Wikipedia biography

So Who Was Harry Price?

At the simplest the question of “who was Harry?” can be answered in a sentence. He was a “publicity hungry dedicated ghosthunter and psychical researcher in the first half of the 20th century who is most famous today for his investigation of the alleged haunting of Borley Rectory, a house on the Essex/Suffolk border”.

He is often depicted as the first great “ghosthunter” – he wasn’t — Elliot O’Donnell came first, and was even more outrageous than Harry. However in the 1920’s Harry became interested in psychical research, studying the paranormal, and after earlier ventures in archaeology and coin collecting failed to make much impact, he turned his attentions to investigating mediums and ghosts.

Despite what the TV show suggests Harry was never a fake medium, or indeed any kind of medium or psychic, and I think it important to say at this point the show is a fiction, and not have much to do with Harry Price the man. Tom Ruffles of the Society for Psychical research has addressed the novel which inspired the series on his blog here, and you will quickly start to see differences between the real and the fictitious Harry Price (the fictitious one has more hair! Surely they could have shaved Rafe Spall’s head? 😉 Harry lost his quite young).


Now Harry was also not the first psychical researcher – the SPR had been going for decades, and huge amounts of work had been done on investigating mediums and researching spooks by the time he got involved.

Harry did have a knowledge of conjuring, and stage magic — and OK I am going to explode in a short off topic rant — for over a century sceptics have said “psychical investigators need to use magicians”. Yet from the 1880’s onwards psychical researchers have done just that; and if you look at the Fielding Report of 1904 in to the medium Eusapia Palladino, through Price right to the present day – yes magicians have always been an important part of field investigations. (Whenever James Randi says “they should take a magician along” I want to scream, because they have been doing this repeatedly since the year dot, and he MUST realise this by now??!)

So why is Harry Price important? Because he was media savvy, and a colossal show off, egotist and publicity hound. Now I write that like it is a bad thing, but I suspect very few of my readers have heard of DJ West, Erlendur Haraldsson, Andreas Somner, Christopher Laursen, Alan Gauld, Robert McLuhan, Carlos and Nancy Alvarado and Steve Hume — all eminent authorities in modern parapsychology —  whose names I took from a journal cover. (If you are the kind of person who has the JSPR lying on your bedroom floor, I am clearly wrong).

Arguably a great deal of important work was done in this period in trying to understand ghosts, with GNM Tyrrel & HH Price (different chap!)  Apparitions being the classic — but honestly who has heard of them? Harry Price was at least known, and his books sold like hot cakes. In fact he would have sold even more, had not wartime paper restrictions and his sudden death while engaged on his third book on Borley not severely restricted them.

So What Did Harry Do?

Harry’s single greatest achievement was arguably marrying a woman who was wealthy enough that he could neglect his job – he was a traveling salesman in the paper industry, and it seems fairly shiftless and before his marriage unable to hold down a job at all for long – and set about making Harry Price famous 🙂

In 1920 Harry joined the Society for Psychical Research (henceforth SPR) and was invited by Eric Dingwall to investigate a medium called Rudi Schneider with him in Germany. There he met the famous psychical researcher Baron Albert Von Notzing (nicknamed Baron “shrink at nothing”). Price put his knowledge of conjuring to good use, debunking a number of mediums, and taking part in a number of high profile seances.

Dingwall later fell out with Price, after Price met an attractive young lady on a train, a nurse called Stella Cranshaw(e). [Price had a peculiar habit of adding a “e” to the end of women’s names – Cranshawe, Kaye. To my amusement Lucy Kay(e) after she married became Mrs Meeker!)

Discovering Stella was a medium, Price began a series of sittings with her – and perhaps a romantic connexion too, though that is based solely on the latter she wrote breaking of further sittings after her engagement in which she says cryptically “it would not be fair on either of us”. There may be a less romantic explanation.

On finding Stella, and being well established, Price dropped “dirty Ding” as Eric Dingwall was nicknamed (he presided over erotic books at the British Museum library) and in fact seems to have prepared to people his test seances with her with actors and celebrities than SPR members according to Dingwall.

It is rarely hard to fall out with the SPR, ASSAP or any other parapsychological organisation if you put your mind to it, and Price realised his sensationalism and celebrity seeking had doomed his chances in the rather dry world of mainstream academic research. So he decided to go it alone!

The National Laboratory of Psychical Research

Price set up his own organisation, the grandly titled National Laboratory of Psychical Research. Price managed to find some wealthy backers to cover expenses (feel free to request my Paypal details if you wish to carry on this noble tradition) and set about testing the Schneider brothers, and eventually accusing Rudi of fraud. Trevor Hall makes a case in his book Search for Harry Price (1978) that Price actually doctored a photo to fraudulently proved the medium was fraudulent, out of jealously when Schneider started to sit for seances for another researcher. I have no knowledge as to the strength of the case – but it is always possible. Harry could get quite narked if you crossed him. ( I will return to Hall’s book later).

Never really getting anything like the respect accorded the SPR Price now tried to set up a university department dedicated to psychical research, and entered in to negotiations with both the University of London, and several German universities.  No department was ever created but the University of London took his book collection and equipment on permanent loan and it remains there to the present day.  He now called his organisation the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation – but it was a sort of affiliated body, not officially part of the university.

He did however have prominent friends there. It was probably the closest we had to a proper parapsychology unit in a British University until the founding of the KPU fifty years later.

Adventures in Psychical Research

Harry was pretty shameless in his pursuit of publicity, and  unlike the stuffy and academic restraint associated with the SPR under Mrs Sidgwick’s presidency, Price was only too willing to engage in tabloid antics. Think of Price as the Most Haunted of his day – immensely popular, sneered at by the ‘professionals’, but everyone knew his name and he did masses to bring about interest in the subject.

He was involved in investigating (and debunking many) famous mediums. More importantly he also got to investigate Gef the Mongoose, probably the most bizarre and splendid poltergeist case of the decade, if not ever. Go read the Wikipedia article – it is worth it!. (Christopher Josiffe’s magisterial treatment is not online afaik, but good bibliography here and Gef has his own endlessly fun (and accurate) Twitter account).

Of course in his adventures Harry had the backing of Richard Lambert of the The Listener, a hugely important figure in the history of the BBC now largely forgotten, and C.E.M. Joad the philosopher, so his mongoose-hunt became a public sensation.

The high point of his publicity seeking trail was the attempt to use a magical manuscript of the Goetia to conjure a goat in to a handsome youth on top of the Brocken (Bloksberg) where the witches dance on accursed Walpurgisnacht.  Price and Joad missed that date, but did conduct the spell on two consecutive nights in June, in front of the news cameras and assembled European journalists. The spell may have failed, but as a publicity stunt it was unrivaled. Whereas nowadays getting that much attention would probably guarantee you university tenure, back in the 1930’s it was probably the nail in the coffin of Harry’s attempts at

Harz, Brocken, Hexenexperiment

 Image from Wikimedia. No goats were injured in this failed transmutation!

academic respectability and getting a university place.

This experiment, the “Bloksberg Tryst” was not just for Harry’s benefit – it was a German Tourist Board sort of affair, to make the centenary of Goethe and to be fair it’s more interesting than staging The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Borley Rectory

I have a tiny family connection with Borley Rectory, so here it is. During the great War my grandmother Alice used to work for Codd’s lemonande bottlers in Bury St Edmunds, and after the War she used to be a delivery agent for a company, possibly Codd’s, delivering lemonade (and milk I believe). Borley was at the further extreme of a round she did, and she said “dark miserable old place. Bad drains. No ghosts” whenever we discussed it. She certainly thought that the stories about Borley in the  Suffolk Free Press/Bury Free Press were a load of bilge, and I must say I was “bored with Borley” even before I had any interest in ghosts.

In fact ghosthunters had a pretty bad reputation locally when I was growing up, as Borley is a hamlet with less than a score of houses, in fact four or five round the church, and idiots driving up looking for ghosts used to cause endless annoyance to residents. At Halloween Suffolk and Essex police used to turn car loads away, and today I believe there are cameras linked back to Sudbury police to allow for rapid intervention if thrill seeking legend trippers cause a disturbance. I’m really surprised no one has been shot in all the years people have been causing hassle there. So the point of this aside – don’t bother the residents of Borley, there is feck all to see there, the rectory burned down in 1939 and the church is firmly locked.

Local residents like Edward Babbs, or my friend Ambi cover the psychical research side for us, and there are far more interesting places to go than Borley. (I have been writing this same disclaimer for almost 30 years – I don’t think it makes much difference but I try).

Anyway Price investigated Borley Rectory, and crucially write two books about it – The Most Haunted House in England, and The End of Borley Rectory. The former in particular strikes me as an interesting and remakably well done piece of psychical research — from Price’s poor reputation in parapsychological circles  had expected something like Elliot O Donell, and it is actually a very well conceived and written book and investigation.BorleyRectory1892

Now I can not begin to do justice to the Borley case here. The case ranges over forty years, and for a year in 1937 Price took the tenancy of the haunted rectory, and investigated it by sensing teams of observers up to say and take notes.  Before Price came on the scene various incumbents, the Bulls,  the Smiths and the Foysters claim to have experienced all manner of things, though Mabel Smith subsequently denied it in a letter to The Church Times (not necessarily to be taken at face value). 

Marianne Foyster was certainly an extraordinary woman, and not being willing to repeat calumny of the dead I think I will stop for now at saying few books are as shocking and outrageous as Robert Wood’s study of her  The Widow of Borley, which makes a sensational case for adultery, bigamy, and even hints at worse. (This book reminded me in many ways of Trevor Hall’s books on psychical researchers, where their feet of clay are revealed).


I rather like Marianne, and have a feeling that in Harry and Marianne we do have fertile scope for the novelist — but as to the truth of Borley, I recommend Ivan Banks book, Edward Babbs, and The Borley Companion to the interested party. One to avoid was the hoax confession We Faked the Ghosts of Borley Rectory by Louis Mayerling, which is actually a hoax itself, though it briefly impressed some sceptics who took it at face value. 😉 I only wish someone had not nicked my copy!

The Borley Rectory case finally made Price a bestselling author, and he achieved the household name status and level of book sales he had always hoped for. 

His sudden death of a heart attack prevented his third book coming out, but he had put Borley on the map, which as anyone who has ever been there will tell you is a pretty bloody impressive feat!

So What Went Wrong?

Price died near the height of his fame, but critics were not far off.  The Borley case was so complex, and some of the stuff in The End of Borley Rectory so questionable, that pretty soon people were asking questions.  A photo of a flying brick that appears in The End was debunked by a journalist who was there who said it was thrown perfectly normally as Price well knew, and a sinister series of allegations surrounding the death of one Katie Boreham who died in Sudbury and was alleged to perhaps be the spook were proven hogwash – and more importantly Price appears to have concealed that he saw the name in the parish register before it came up during a Ouija board session.  Doubts were cast on various persons testimony, and Price accused of having planted certain medallions found in the dig he did under the rectory ruin after the building burned down.

The attack was not spearheaded by the sceptics, oddly enough – most of whom simply sneered at tales of ghosts in those days – but by the members of the SPR, the Society for Psychical Research.  As always in these matters you have to consider the political context of the individuals involved, in the sense of their affiliation to rival camps.  What is important to note though is that the SPR does not hold corporate opinions — ,members are free to believe whatever they want, and may were friends of Price. 

However Borley came under hostile scrutiny, and he attack culminated in The Haunting of Borley Rectory: A Critical Survey of the Evidence  (1956) by SPR members  Mrs K. Goldney, E. J. Dingwall and Trevor Hall.  I think it fair to say this book severely dented Price’s reputation, though of course it never had the reach of Price’s own populist books.

Harry Price, Charlatan?

Then in 1978 one of the authors of that critical report, Trevor Hall, went far, far further in Search for Harry Price basically making a case that anything written by Harry Price was totally unreliable, and that the man was a complete liar. His book the Search for Harry price begins by digging in to Harry’s family background, discovering some unsavoury characters and that far from the gentry of Shropshire harry purported to spring from, he was in fact from humble origins. If Harry lied about his ancestors it may not have been consciously – at least one of them may have had good reason to misrepresent himself to his children and grandchildren, and Price did have Shropshire roots.

So Price pretended he came from monied classes, had a boarding school education and was a son of a wealthy paper manufacturer, whereas in fact he had very little, and lived by his wits without much in the way of a proper job for years, even peddling patent veterinary medicine which sounds like snake oil and touring the country putting on magic lantern shows, while holding a series of menial jobs. Harry seems to have been a bit of a  snob, and after his very advantageous marriage in to wealth he “improved” his background to allow him to move in his new social circle, even going as far as having book plates printed to go in his books with a spurious coat of arms and for those he claimed to have inherited from his dad’s collection from a stately home where neither of them had ever set foot. 51eXNsV6qcL._SL500_

To Hall this is absolutely damning – he lied, therefore is a liar, therefore can not be trusted. This was very much the attitude of the SPR  historically. If you get caught cheating or lying once, why should we ever trust you? Clearly however these biographical lies were to make Harry look better, and with the class prejudice of the era one might make a case they were necessary. The Victorian SPR had been remarkably egalitarian, and wonderfully open to all – but under Mrs Sidgwick it became an absolute bastion of Establishment propriety, and the doors might firmly have been shut in the face of a tradesman like Price?

Unfortunately Price seemed intent on being caught out, as he is totally inconsistent about his biography, adventures and other matters in his books. Almost any fact he subsequently seems to contradict in a later publication. Hall did extensive research to find that sometimes you find Price only giving key facts ion one foreign publication, or retelling exactly the same incident totally differently each time.

The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Nighttime

My favourite piece of Hall’s rather turgid but extraordinarily thorough debunk on poor old Harry is the story Price tells four times, in four different books. In each case it is he claims the only ghost he ever experienced at home, and in each case the main details agree — Price is in bed, hears footsteps approaching his bed, turns on the light and it the footsteps stop. The light varies as to a lamp or lantern, and other minor details vary – but in a piece on Animal Ghosts it was his dead but faithful dog whose paws he clearly heard, then it was the bare feet of a ghostly toddler, and finally he describes it as clearly a poltergeist manifestation.

Now Hall perfectly makes his case – Price presents his experience three times, using it to present different perspectives depending on the main theme of his argument at the time. One might argue this is not gospel through — except that the authors of the Synoptics even certainly did exactly this, editing their material and presenting it to make a point, and I don’t think people consider that fraudulent?  It seems a little harsh to hold Price to a higher standard than the Bible, and assume deception rather than recourse to literary device? Secondly, it seems entirely consistent with memory and how one writes to reinterpret the experience over time, and get things wrong. Price was either incredibly careless, or not intentionally lying – he was just telling the same story as far as he was concerned, probably not aware he was contradicting himself. There is something quite believable about the account – I had a vaguely similar experience once in a pub near Corby, and I’m inclined to think something did happen that impressed Harry.

Hall’s book is rather unpleasant to read – vindictive and base. I enjoy Hall’s book, but this is the only one where he was left feeling he went too far, and often it was not necessary, and he offers Harry no benefit fo the doubt. Still if you are interested in Price, it is probably more useful than the autobiography Search for Truth (1942) and Dr Paul Tabori’s biography which is rather a homage.

All in all, Price may be his own worse enemy – but he was fascinating, and a bigger man than many of his critics.

CJ, Christmas 2015.

















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My Friend Fancies You – Gaming Romance

So I’m back from Peaky, the game writing weekend, after a few hours on site. I left at breakfast on the first full day, with a full refund and a lift to a train station, but still pretty dejected and out of pocket through trains. An  organizational cock up led to someone not being assigned a bed at this residential con, and unfortunately they nicked mine. As it was the middle of the night and everyone apart from me and Roger seemed to be pretty merry or asleep, I tried to doss down on a sofa  and cricked my neck. Unable to sleep – it gets cold down in the living rooms with no heating and no bedding, I wandered around the site until 6am when other folks got up.  Still thanks to Graham A, Ali and Alison I got a good breakfast before I left, and thanks to the wondrous Andrew Sceats who lent me money and  the excellent Martin Jones who really came through by driving me to a station I got a train home and was asleep by 1pm. I’m really upset about missing out on one of the two events I am doing this year for such a pointless reason – and it looks like with finances as utterly desperate as they are I might miss Consequences as well, which given my current annoyance/dejection/misery might be a good thing.

Anyhow this time we went with Graham W’s idea of writing a game about Romance. I think he means “romantic love”; Romance is of course a complicated set of genres, and I did not think we were going to create a Gothic Romance, or an Arthurian Romance, or any other “fabulous” tale.  We took it as more Mills & Boone romance I think, but I missed some of this discussion as I was trying to locate my room in the absence of post it notes with names on the door, or room numbers etc 😦

What Happened at Peaky…

Anyway we split in to two groups – Mo Holkar, Kath Banks, Tony Mitton, Nick Curd, Steve Hatherley and Graham W in one, who said they were going to do something more Nordic/Experimental (I doubt it will be more Nordic than me – they all seemed quite British! 😉 ) and Richard Perry, Roger G, Natalie Curd, Elyssia and myself in the other. I was *very* happy with my group. I think the others produced 4, a “horror game that felt horrific” last year.hearts

So I got to write with a bunch of people I really love writing with; all great game writers. Unlike the ‘Nordic group’ I’m not so invested in game theory – mainly because I don’t know much bar what Nathan has pointed me at over the years, but I figured if we were going to write a game about Romantic love it should be, well romantic 😉 This is a fault I need to remedy – a lot of Nordic LARP seems to derive from Improv theory, but I have spent a few happy evenings reading the Jeep site.

The group stormed through some amazing ideas, and were creating a fine game when I had to leave. I would have offered to write a couple of characters from here but I don’t think that would work – you have to be present to actually know what is going down, in the frenzied writing of a Peaky freeform. So I thought I’d write my own game tonight. Sure no will will play it, but at least I will produce something from this utterly wasted weekend of misery. The one good thing was I got to see fat black cat and the other Upper Rectory kitty again, and the Arnolds and a few other friends.

Love In Theory

So first up – we are going to write a game about romantic love, so what do we mean by that? Romantic love is a culturally constructed state according to many psychologists; some historians claim it was a product of 12th century Western Europe, and that those cultural ideas shaped the experience of love for all subsequent generations. I have no idea where the truth lies – but I want to explore easily accessible pop culture versions of romantic love that we can relate to from personal experience, in a Western European (or North American) setting. So the Romantic love of Hollywood, fluttering hearts, crushes, infatuation, mad passion and star crossed lovers.

This kind of romantic love is like an artillery barrage; it devastates everything, but the real action of love is what follows six to thirty six months later according to psychologists, when the initial fireworks and fluttering gets replaced by the “she has so many faults but I love her” realistic kind of relationship love. Straight away, drawing on pretty mainstream psychological research, we have something interesting. While the Biblical era Greeks had four types of love, here it is suggested that eros, romantic love, may turn in to something more like storge after a relatively short time.

So let’s take this as a model. Of course you can emulate the wild being in love feeling later in a relationship – but it is distinct from solid relational love. The game we were writing at Peaky was about a growing relationship – the latter kind of love, or the transition from romantic love to relationship/security love. I joked that as we were starting with some characters in relationships that was like starting the larp in prison and ignoring the shoot out at the bank before hand; I’m not sure I manage to convey my point. (Neither group was actually interested in the psychology or history or cultural positioning of romantic love I think – Steve Hatherley said he would be in whatever group I wasn’t – maybe I just come over as too academic, but it gives me a starting point to explore raw human emotion in a larp). Of course you might just want to emulate the genre rules of cinematic larp, or literary larp – that would “feel romantic” too – but it would be like the difference between seeing a ghost and watching a ghost movie – the genre conventions are true to themselves, not the phenomenology of apparitional experience.

Now some people get hooked on the endorphins high of romantic love, and endlessly change partners, believing that because they way they love is changing, that is not “the one” and ending one relationship for another. I’m not suggesting that is always wrong – but I do think we can get addicted to the rush of romantic love. In our game therefore love can be both incredible explosively potent – but also fickle.

So I want to write a game dealing with couples falling in and out of romantic love. I need a model, so I will take the Jungian one – not because it is necessarily true, but because it is elegant and easy to map in to games. In this model romantic love is a kind of religious devotion – the other party takes on that quality theologian Paul Tillich reserved for the Divine; that which is the ultimate ground of our being. Our put another way, she is crazy about the guy and thinks of nothing else.

heartsHowever the Jungian model suggests this almost idolatrous passion is false; based upon a lie. Just as the atheist philosopher Feurbach said we project our desires on to the Heavens and call them God; so in romantic love we project our own needs, desired qualities and aspirations on the object of our affections, imbuing the loved one with almost mystical virtues. So to really get in to the spirit of playing romantic love, treat the other as a goddess or at least a demigod. Ignore all flaws – ignore all human features – no scatological Swiftian revelation can break the divine spell.

Years ago my girlfriend Polly and I used to celebrate Valentine’s Day by engaging in little romances, lying to each other all day about our repeated infidelities (which were mythical) or plans to poison the other or our involvement in armed robbery or whatever lie came to mind – using the dictionary definition of romance,

Romance : something (as an extravagant story or account) that lacks basis in fact

To romance can mean to lie – the last line of Saki’s The Open Window uses it in this sense, and I only recently noticed that many of my friends did not understand why “romance at short notice was her specialty”. They probably don’t understand why someone might carry a torch for someone either, or act like a bit of a pill. 😉

So by the Jungian model it is easier to fall in love at first sight – you have very little to stop you endowing your beloved with any qualities you want, as you know nothing of them. They are a blank slate, often one with pretty eyes or a beguiling bosom. It is MUCH more rare to hear of people falling for their best friends – hence that horrible phrase “friend zone” – but unless something dramatic happens you can’t fall in love (i.e.. lie to yourself about) someone you know really well. 😉

Now this may all seem rather cynical, and anyway I’m well known for regarding psychodynamic models as pretty much nonsense. So why use it? Well because the model sort of works, and provides a framework. The full Jungian model has a woman possessing the shadow-man – her animus that she projects on to the beloved male. You can read about the animus and anima, those anthropomorphic archetypes that lurk in our unconscious here. So it’s a Just-So Story, but one that works; if we want a romantic game that feels romantic, we can play with projecting the players’ anima/animus on to another player.

If you can get this right, the players will fall in love with each other. No not characters. I mean players – hence the bolding…hearts

Bleeding Hearts…

Before we start to discuss how to do that, maybe we should consider if it is desirable, ethical, or useful. Do we actually want players to fall in love? And is it even possible to manufacture love? The answer is of course yes – and we have a strong commercial history of selling pretty clothes and make up by claiming it will provoke love – and family cars too – and pretty much everything else come to think of it.

However anyone who has kicked around larp circles know couples who met in game – however you meet plenty of tabletop roleplayers who met in game, or stamp collectors who met a ta convention, or squash players who met down the court. The fact people with common interests sometimes fall in love is not exactly surprising or interesting. However, have you ever fallen in love in character, and then been confused by your feelings after the game, finding yourself angry or infatuated with or just hung up on something the other character said? It’s Bleed – when emotions in game bleed like ink over the page, and cross over out of game. Emily Care Boss coined the phrase in 2007 – I guess It’s American Freeform not Nordic originally, but it’s well known in other contexts. I recently did some work looking at couples who played lovers in Hollywood films – and fell in love on set. This is Bleed. The role has become an out of character truth; the characters were in love, now the players are.

So we can have a little moral panic about how easily it would be to manipulate someone’s emotions: or the dangers of falling ion love with inappropriate people in games, or of screwing over our own relationships. Now I am rather unlovely – no woman is going to fall for me in game; but I also understand the phenomenon from my days back in the psychotherapy community. It’s pretty much what the Freudians call Transference/Countertransference – it is worth just looking at that link quickly.

So as a young therapist they tried to teach me methods to ground myself, and dismiss any inappropriate relationships that emerge. Teachers so likewise. Nordic larpers acknowledge bleed, and spend time de-roleing, reverting to normal, so they do not carry the bleed too far. Still it is easy to fall in love with someone through a game- and the Jungian model gives us a powerful clue why – you know you are not dealing with the real person, so you can project your fantasies on to the character much easier, and that crosses to the player.

Except I think that is a nonsense. Some of you may have done some Cognitive Behaviour Therapy which includes the Hot Cross Bun model. I believe, following William James and a centuries worth of experimental psychologists, that notion of personality and self based on essentialist principles – you have a set of factors that are stable and describe you – may be flawed. An awful lot of experimental evidence suggests that you change peoples thinking by modifying their behaviour – getting them to play a role causes them to change who they are, because they become how they behave.speed

Now this is a whole different essay – and has pretty profound implications for roleplayers, many of whom now finally understand why they became a bearded dwarf and always carry a battle axe and a ten foot pole to the office. 😉 Jokes aside though, acting out a role is a pretty good way to cause changes in thinking. Praxis leads to devotion, not vice versa by this model. You do something, like smoke, and that causes you to think like a smoker. You act like a bully, you will become a bully. Of course most larpers will de-role. Or get thumped. All this will be socially contextualised. Falling in love however – can that really happen, just because you are acting like you are in love?

Yes. It happens in Hollywood, it happens in games, and it happens in nightclubs. You know those creeps in the PUA** community? They learned tricks I learned from a psychologist, like get a girl to buy you a drink and she will like you – because she bought you a drink, so she must do. It even happens in lab studies.

So how do you test love in the lab? Simple – set up a speed dating event. We know the base percentages of how many couples want to meet afterwards. Now get them to engage in touch, eye contact, footsie during their speed dates – to act as if they are already in a relationship. the numbers go through the roof – add dim lighting, mood music, tell to hold hands and gaze in it each others eyes and you end up with happy couples falling for each other.hearts

Add to this the rollercoaster effect. You are better off taking a date to a horror movie, a rollercoaster or a quick run through the bad part of town chased by rabid wolves than a romantic laid back meal. If their heartbeat is raised, they are way more likely to be attracted to you and date/cop off with you.

Enough! If you want to know how to exploit experimental psychology in an attempt to get less single – and can handle the ethical issues – buy a copy of Prof. Richard Wiseman’s 2012 book Rip It Up. LARPERs may sometimes do it by accident – I may be able to write a game which uses all the findings of experimental psychology and Madison Avenue to cause at least some of the players to fall madly in love with each other – in fact I may well try to do this for next Consequences. If all the players are single, and give informed consent like those in Wiseman’s speed dating experiments then ethical issues may be a little simpler.

Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman

For this weekend, let us assume I want to write a game where the players DO NOT fall in love with each other. This was roughly the point I was at when we set off in our groups last night – after a fairly sharp retort from Steve Hatherley I guessed they wanted to avoid theory of this sort, and stick with Nordic Larp theory, and my group did not seem enthused by the few brief references so I aimed at trying to get us to emulate a genre narrative, by talking about favourite love films in my occasional interjection and little contributions.

Now through mischance I’m stuck at home, 100 miles from the action, and while my weekend is ruined I can at least try and work on writing a game that 2is a romance game that feels romantic”. I have already decided NOT to make the players fall in love (until Consequences – and those who have played Romantic roles against me may now realise why I play avoidant or awful partners in romances, just to be safe – no one will fall for me, but I might fall heavily for you after all – so the more lovely you as a player are the more my character will prove evasive or crap in a romance!)

Anyway – how do I write a game based on my theoretical musings? Let’s design a game to do one thing – High School dating – passionate, desperate, secret and highly social, filled with gossip, backbiting and status plays.  This is a very rough first draft…

Lemonade Crush

A LARP for 5 to 8 players of any gender mix.

Setting: High School. Most people experience romantic love the first time there? I’m thinking Grease as inspiration – Summer Nights and all that jazz. High School Romance just works. You could set it wherever you want; but I want the love affairs to be examined through a friendship (and enemy network). Love affairs can at this age be status plays I guess – so we want a group of people who know each other well, interact daily, and most importantly don’t fall for each other, at least initially. Yes – the loved ones in this game of love are not going to be played by players, or referees. They will be abstracted as posters on the walls.

This is NOT to stop the players falling in love with each other. It is to make it about being in love, and projecting your romantic fantasies (or animus/anima) on the other person: but you don’t really know that person, and in this game we are dealing with the falling in love bit – when the poster reciprocates, it is seen through the discussion between the players. The poster itself remains quite passive. 🙂


Set Up:  Firstly you need some big bits of paper taped to a wall or similar to represent the BELOVEDS. There are two less BELOVEDS than players. Some players are not going to end up with one of these high status wallflowers 😉 Each BELOVED have a name, a gender, and nothing else. Peter, Male will do. The genders should be roughly those of the desired gender for the player characters – so if you have 2 Female heterosexuals, 2 females lesbians and 3 gay men you will have 5 BELOVEDS, and maybe 4 should be men, one female. People may of course choose to change their character’s sexual orientation in play as they realise they are bi or straight or gay or whatever. It’s High School, it happens. IT is also quite permissible to play a closeted character, and engage in romance for public purposes with an opposite sex character before changing and going for a same sex character. I’m going to use heterosexuality mainly in examples when writing, but seriously, it is not important in the game. I’m not trying to not be inclusive, I just tend to be by being straight use heteronormative terms reflexively so I may as well acknowledge this failing now…

Tape the BELOVEDS far enough around the walls that they are not next to each other – players have to move from end of the room to end to be next to them – spread them out. Write a word describing where in the school they are usually found in each – that area by the poster is now that area in play. So CANTEEN, GYM, COMMON ROOM, BEHIND THE STANDS, BY THE LAKE, IN THE LIBRARY, OUTSIDE THE SCHOOL GATES, OUT OF BOUNDS etc, etc. When a player approaches a poster they are going to that part of the school, and should roleplay accordingly.hearts

Character Creation: Give each player a cardboard heart in a different colour, and some bluetack to stick it to a poster later on. They will have 5 in total, so cut out plenty from brightly coloured card, but they only get one per scene.

Now give each character a character sheet – I’ll write a few pregenerated ones, or you can design your own, if you want to play close to home and base it on yourself at school, or invent a fun character. You need a couple of paragraphs of public knowledge, which say what all the kids know about you. Write this, add a name, then introduce yourself by reading your paragraph out loud.

Now write a another paragraph, with hidden stuff about you – important, scandalous, interesting or scary stuff. Stuff worth gossiping about. Keep it realistic for the setting – you might be guilty of burning down a barn, or have had an affair with Mrs Smith the Piano Teacher – but avoid “am a serial killer” type OTT secrets. Believing you are psychic is fine. Your dad having an affair is fine. Your mum being the President is probably not. 😉

Your best friends will know this stuff, but no one else. Decide who your best friends are from the other CHARACTERS – NOT the BELOVEDS. Write their names on your character sheet, but DO NOT discuss it. Your best friends may have chosen you back – or may have chosen someone else. It doesn’t matter – High School is like that. Resist the temptation to discuss this before the game starts. Everyone know reveals who their two best friends are, and goes off with them and reads them their Hidden Stuff paragraph.

Setting Up The Beloveds: Each of the BELOVEDS now is assigned something which makes them stand out. Each player chooses something in turn, and writes it on a BELOVED, until each BELOVED has a Status. Start from this list –


That’s just to get you started. The BELOVEDS are the students everyone wants to be, or be with. Each has one of those status. Now you need to add

One Intriguing Fact about each. Start with which ever players have not got to assign a status to a BELOVED, and let them make up the first two, and write them on any BELOVED; one each. Then carry on with players taking turns until every BELOVED has an Intriguing Fact.  To be an Intriguing Fact it must NOT follow on from the Status. So you can NOT say the Team Captain “is under consideration for a Manchester Utd youth team place”. You could say “has a aunt popularly reputed to be a witch who feeds the pigeons each day in the market square”.   Intriguing Facts are by definition TRUE – and help make the beloved’s fascinating.

and then the next player in order starts with

One Thing they like – Again this should not follow on from the Beloved’s Status, or the Intriguing Fact. The Team Captains with the Witchy aunt might like pigeons – but that is too close to the aunt who feeds them. He might like cricket – but Team Captains often do. So he has “a passion for Astronomy, and often goes up to the old Observatory on the hill at night alone”.  Go for interesting things, with plot potential, not “candy floss” or “big boobs”.

till each BELOVED has been assigned one, and then

One Thing In People They Despise – There are no limits on this section, but players who know anything about other characters may well use this to make sure that other characters who are say dog breeders will have a real problem with  this character who “despises animal lovers”.

Finally, keep going in sequence, give out postcards for each BELOVED’S Secret. Secrets can be dramatic, trivial, or just a way to their heart. Somehow the player who assigns the BELOVED’s character has found out the secret – but the BELOVED does not know they know.  The cards are bluetacked face to the poster, until the Secret is revealed.  Two characters will not know any BELOVED’S Secret.  This is intentional.

An Outsider whether they know a secret ot not may now snoop by looking at one of the other BELOVED’s secrets – they may know one or two secrets, but Outsider’s are ignored by the popular BELOVED kids so learn more by just being able to spy more without being noticed!

My Secret Crush: Each player now records which of the BELOVED they have a secret crush on. They may not immediately pursue that BELOVED, preferring to aim for another easier to date BELOVED, but there is a record of who they liked at the start of the game, and at the end players compare notes. It is very likely they will have changed their minds…

The Aim of the Game: Is to fall madly in love and have it reciprocated. BELOVED’s offer their affections to whoever has offered them at least three hearts, and more than anyone else.  No one may offer their heart to another player until Scene 3. Hearts not used in a Scene are lost.

We are now ready to begin the game itself .

heartsHow It Plays

A group of chairs in the centre of the room represents the playground. Each scene occurs on a Tuesday, at lunch break, one week apart. The game represents a month of High School, with a final scene which discusses “Where are they know”.  Each Scene last exactly 25 minutes till the lunchtime bell goes; the GM’s should time it and ring a bell to mark time out..

The players start in character chatting over lunch. They may tell each other secrets about BELOVEDS or each other – but if you treacherously betray someone’s hidden information, you can’t do it in front of them!  Build Improv style on what other players say; don’t block, say yes. However in this game, you are falling hard for someone, and your job is to not admit it, but to subtly mention the BELOVED you are infatuated with about six times! Act a bit swoony – the real test of your roleplaying here is can you play at being in love at High School convincingly?

Now the Hearts – to put a heart on a poster, you must go and interact with them. However you are very nervous, so you must take a friend with you, to witness your attempt at wooing. It can be really subtle, like offering to carry their books, or standing open mouthed and staring and giggling at ten paces from the poster,or flexing your muscles and working out just across from the poster.  If your friend thinks you act appropriately High Schooler in love trying to impress a popular kid, you may put a heart on the poster in Scene One. In later Scenes you need to show you have something in common, or explain how the two of you woo the BELOVED by somehow playing on their fascinating fact, like, dislike or status. After Scene 3 you need two friends to be involved in helping you win them over.

OR If you can tell a GM the Beloved’s Secret, and explain how you are playing on it, you can put a Heart on without a friend. Only one heart per scene, and a different way of winning their affections based on their secret each time is required.

You can also remove a single heart from a poster, by spreading (vaguely true) malicious gossip or secrets about the lover. You need a friend to accompany you again; call a GM over, march over to the poster bold as brass and whisper why that Beloved should never be trusted and is an awful person – and GIVE A GOOD REASON.

Then go back to mooning around, gossiping, or trying to find out more about a Beloved.

At the End of  A Scene: Write a new sentence about yourself on your character sheet. Tell your two best friends, even if you now hate them because they have spread your story all over school. Everyone who  placed a heart on a BELOVED can write a new sentence on the poster which becomes true about that BELOVED “Johnny will never race cars again after his elder brother was in that smash up” or “Mary has a real thing against Catholic kids (like Jim’s character)”#

Additional for End of Scene 3 & 4:  If anyone has three hearts on a BELOVED and no one else has, write “Going out with X” where X is that characters name. To prevent them winning at the end of the SCENE 4, the others will have to plot to break them up and remove a heart. This requires at least 2 characters co-operating, and as the player will add another heart, you will need at least two plots to end that relationship.  If it is the end of Scene 4 it is already too late.

Any characters (NOT BELOVED’s who don’t have hearts being cardboard cut outs) who swap hearts in Scenes 3 or 4 are now going out. They break up if one player declares it, and you can tell them secrets or try and break them up, but it is a player choice. Being in such a relationship at the end of the game is a minor victory for both players, if the other players agree in a simple majority vote they appear to be in love 😉

Scene 5; This scene is much shorter. Each character has a chance to speak about where they are twenty years on, and what life did to to them. Each other player then adds a single factor comment to that picture, which the player must acknowledge as true, and then they wrap up. This can often be funny, or tragic, or just poignant. Did the High School relationships last?


A Final Note

I dashed this off in 3 hours on my own, so it is a mere fragment of a Peaky team writing game, and therefore a bit pants. Still it is probably quite different to the proper well written games, and allows me to participate a little even though I am banished home by a cricked neck and lack of a bed. 🙂 It does illustrate my style of writing though – start with the big picture, identify what I want the game to do, then aim at doing one thing well. I’ll be interested to see how my musings on romance in games compare with what came out of Peaky…


CJ x


** If you don’t know what the PUA community is don’t worry. Your life is better for it.

Posted in Dreadful attempts at humour, Fun forthcoming events, Games, Science, Social commentary desecrated, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Review: The Bermuda Triangle Mystery – Solved by Lawrence David Kusche

Book titles tend to be prone to hyperbole, but this 1975 book, one of my favourite books, does exactly what it says on the cover. It simply explains the Bermuda Triangle phenomena, and also teaches a few lessons in critical thinking that deeply impressed 10 year old me when I first read it. Charles_Berlitz_-_The_Bermuda_Triangle_-_1977_Panther_paperback_book_cover

I grew up in the 1970’s, and books were my sweets or chocolate, While I used to spend hours riding around the farm or climbing trees, or playing in puddles where leaves formed ships and carried cargoes of flower petals and little stones over muddy seas to imagined nations – but at night I used to read pretty much anything I could lay my hands on.  My older siblings (the closest is 14 years older than me) left all manner of books – and as I got older my pocket money was spent on books from the second hand book shops in Hatter Street, Bury, now sadly all gone.

Eventually I stumbled upon Charles Berlitz’s The Bermuda Triangle, and I was instantly hooked!  I had a friend called Splodge – well that was not what his parents called him but his nickname, but I won’t embarrass him by giving his real name – and we both read through that book time and time again, usually with me reading and him looking words up when we were puzzled. There weren’t many kids at Ingham Primary – I think 7 the year I left, and it closed as a result – but we were probably the only ones to ever sit around talking about magnetic pole reversal, which we felt had to be involved somehow in any explanation.

Now we were not alone – Charles Berlitz (yes he of the language school) had written The Bermuda Triangle (1974) one of the biggest sellers of the 1970’s (20 million copies in 30 languages), and while it never reached quite the level of influence of Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, it was a massive influence on popular culture. There was a film (I never saw it!) in 1978, and it even made Top of the Pops in 1981, via the awesome Barry Manilow. If you are not at work, you must stop and watch this now 😉 You will thank me for it!

“Bermuda Triangle makes people disappear…” That video just makes me blush!

In 1981 Splodge and I were at middle school in Bury, and while still friends my obsession with the boardgame Diplomacy and roleplaying games was leading us in different directions.  One day however I found a book called The Bermuda Triangle – Solved, by Lawrence David Kusche, and I bought it and read it.  It taught me a valuable lesson in critical thinking, and made me far more sceptical. (I soon after acquired a book that demolished von Daniken – I’ll have to dig that one out!)

The Bermuda Triangle – Solved

Last week I was lucky enough to find a copy again in a second hand book shop, and curiously enough on rereading it, it does not contain the passage I (mis)remember as coming from it about the Bermuda Triangle being a HUGE area, and one of the busiest air and seaways in the world, so statistically the number of disappearances is no more than one would expect, if that. Nor does it mention the possibility of piracy and vessels and planes being stolen for drug running. While both may be factors in some of the cases examined – around 50 chronological short chapters, with a demolition of Ivan T. Sandersen’s Vile Vortices and a piece on The Devils Sea off Japan at the end – Kusche would actually not be impressed. He rejects ALL theories for the Bermuda Triangle phenomena, because he does not think that is such a thing (in fact he demonstrates beautifully there isn’t) and because he advocates rejecting all theoretical top down approaches.

Bermuda 2

What Kusche does is take each case as a *separate incident*. And then he does something quite extraordinary – rather than as “mystifiers” usually do simply copying stories from earlier books on the subject, Kusche looked up the original documents, wrote  letters to the Coast Guard and other parties, and dug out contemporary newspaper articles. He seems to have also developed a pretty good knowledge of ocean currents, compasses, navigation, and all manner of other subjects – by looking stuff up, and writing to people.

Kusche was (I’m guessing he is retired now) a librarian, and he dedicates his book to all the other librarians he worked with using Inter Library Loans, and to the Arizona librarians who were his colleagues and who kept being asked for books on the Bermuda Triangle. His book came out the year after Berlitz’s, and while he is careful not to mention or critique individual authors – he mentions The Legend – it is clear Berlitz is one of his main targets.

So what did Kusche find? Basically that a lot of authors are a) lazy or b) dishonest. Some cases (two or three) seems to be entirely imaginary –  simply made up. None of them are very interesting or significant though. A few of the vessels listed as missing in much Bermuda Triangle lore were actually found, safe and well, with crews intact – they were just delayed, out of radio contact, or rather prematurely reported missing in one case by a slightly over anxious son.

Where the vessels or planes are missing, time and time again there is little mystery. In a surprising number of cases some debris was found, though in many none. In a LOT of cases there was terrible weather at the time of the loss – not mentioned in most accounts now. What is very common is for the Triangle authors to make things sound more mysterious than they actually were.  Planes were within sight of the airfield and just vanished. Weather conditions were perfect when ships vanish half way through a message. In short the writers have allowed truth to give way to dramatic flourishes, and they sometimes actually get “improved” by further invented details by subsequent authors, though not always.  These details always serve the purpose of making the story weirder, more interestingly mysterious.

The newspaper accounts throw up all manner of little errors that have crept in to the stories. Kusche opens each chapter with “The Legend” – a composite account of how the story is told in books on the supernatural – and then gives the facts. A few cases took place nowhere near what we would consider the Bermuda Triangle – one occurred in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico, several a lot closer in the Gulf of Mexico but others all over the North Atlantic, right up to within a few hundred miles of Ireland.  I was surprised at the inclusion of Donald Crowhurst and the Teignmouth Electron – according to Kusche one author depicts this as a mysterious disappearance, rather than the clear case of suicide it was!

At the end of the book Kusche summarises his findings, and points out the only clear conclusuon. Prioperly examined on a case by case basis, there is no need to postulate a “Bermuda Triangle effect”. There are certainly some intriguing mysteries, like the Carroll A Deering, or the loss of Star Ariel – but there is no need to invoke a common cause for the losses.

Interestingly, Kusche provides details that even someone like me who has watched many documentaries and read much of what has been written on these matters had missed. For example, I always wondered why Taylor, Flight Leader on Flight 19 never switched radio frequencies to the clear emergency frequency when requested, or why when a radio location fix was established fairly early in the crisis he was not able to find his way back to Fort Lauderdale. The answers are given by Kusche – one of the Flight could not access the emergency frequency, so Taylor kept everyone on 4800 to keep his planes together, and the station that got the directional fix on Flight 19 could not reach them, and their teletype was not working – so those who *were* taking to Flight 19 did not know where they were to pass the information on! (If you don’t know about the events of December 5th 1945, look at Flight 19 here).

Now Kusche has to be fair been perhaps a little superseded by Wikipedia – I’m guessing much of his book is now cited on the individual wiki enties for the cases – yet for sheer encyclopaedic dogged critical thinking and hard work his efforts will always be impressive. It is a little masterpiece of scepticism, and one that curiously you rarely hear big name Skeptics invoke, perhaps because so few people care about the Bermuda Triangle now?

A Curious Foreshadowing

One case however did really strike me – and it’s one I know well from various books, Star Ariel. Star Ariel was flying from Bermuda to Kingston, Jamaica, and a short distance in to the flight announced it was signing off from Bermuda and would be signing on to Kingston. Kingston never heard from it — and in fact it never radioed Nassau either. This strikes Kusche as odd.  I don’t know how to use my paint program on this PC, but I will attempt a rough map…

The route of Star Ariel. Last transmission was just four minutes after crossed the 30 degree line at 9.37am local time, when the pilot said was swapping over radio to Kingston, the destination. Why?

The route of Star Ariel. Last transmission was just four minutes after crossed the 30 degree line at 9.37am local time, when the pilot said was swapping over radio to Kingston, the destination. Why?

Something odd here. Apparently most pilots worked Bermuda much longer, then worked Nassau mid flight, or more likely stayed in touch with Bermuda then swapped to Kingston at the mid-point. Yet at 9.42am, the Star Ariel just beyond the 30 degree N line radioed “I am changing frequency to MRX” [Kingston]. Why? Kusche is puzzled, and so am I.  The plane has not made contact with Kingston, and was 100 miles in to a 1,100 mile flight.  Then the quote that stopped me dead for a moment

“The possibility of an aircraft signing off on one frequency, and not reporting on the new one does not appear to be have been guarded against by the procedures laid down by the highest authorities up till this time”

Those words come from the 1948 Ministry of Civil Aviation report on the loss of Star Ariel, and are cited by Kusche. When I read them as a child they meant nothing to me, and if I had read them a year ago they would have provoked little interest.

Then of course it happened again – the jet MH370 vanished under exactly these circumstances, going missing in the switch-over from  one air traffic system to another.  I’m not going to get excited by conspiracy theory, but it seems the 1948 advice was never acted upon, and it does make me wonder if Star Ariel could have been deliberately lost, though why I can not imagine?

The year before Star Tiger had vanished on the Azores to Bermuda run, and various theories have been put forward, often revolving around navigational failure (Kusche downplays this an unlikely) or defective cabin heaters causing a fire.

The important thing is, when you take away all the “paranormal” mystery, there is plenty of genuine mystery left to go around!

In Summary

This remains an excellent book, and an excellent sceptical work. Kusche explains why compasses spin, and many other minor mysteries – and curiously the first “lost in a fog” Piper account, that preceded later electronic fog encounters, actually appears to be a fictional case. The book is filled with interesting snippets even for the armchair expert, and is certainly thought provoking, even 40 years after it was published. Highly recommended

I have not seen the Prometheus Books new edition from 1985 – buy it here!

CJ x

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RPG Review: Mars Colony, a 2 player Tabletop RPG by Tim Koppang

Can you save Mars? A 2 player RPG that is not an investigative game, and that does politics well…

So this morning I found myself with the prospect of a free evening, and in a spirit of optimism I fired off text messages to a number of friends seeing who might be available for the 5th ed Dungeons & Dragons campaign we have talked about starting for a while.  Unsurprisingly perhaps, given the lack of notice, only one person got back to me.

Now I don’t know about you, but I actually enjoy running RPG sessions with a GM and 2 or 3 players. A lot of games, from Ars Magica to Call of Cthulhu can really shine with a small number of players, but unfortunately I don’t think Dungeons & Dragons is one. D&D seems to work best with 4 to 5 players and a referee, and 5th edition seems to regard 4 players as the norm.  I’m an experienced referee and can modify a scenario quickly, but one player – no it would lose too much…

Mars Colony rpg Still Ben was coming over, and I did not want to cancel. We could play a boardgame – but then I remembered one night back last Summer I ran a little indie game by Tim Koppang  ( @tckoppang ) called Mars Colony. On the night in question I had gone over to see my friend Richard, and for various reasons we had not been able to play an rpg in years – he can’t make most sessions.  Then I recalled I owned this little game, which can be played, indeed is designed to be played in an evening, and which has interesting themes. Best of all it is designed specifically for one on one play, and Richard and I really enjoyed it – so much so I backed the follow up Mars Colony: 39 Dark on Kickstarter.

So tonight Ben and I played Mars Colony. Can you review a game based on two plays? Actually that is more than I get to give some games nowadays, as I have so many things I want to try that some games fall by the wayside quickly. However some games that were mindblowing the first time I ran them – like Primetime Adventures – later felt flat with less inspired players. I therefore like to play a game an awful lot before I review it, which is why I’m still waiting to review say Pavis for Heroquest  (still one scenario left to run!).

So a two player RPG – does it work?  Short answer – yes. You need the rules, available on pdf (or print) here, 2 six sided dice, some paper, preferably a few index card but pieces of paper will suffice and a couple of pens. Print out the “character sheet” and the “political organisations sheet” and you are ready to play.

I then just read Ben the first few sections of the rules. In many games this would be extremely tedious, but the page count here (around 54) is deceptive – the pages are fairly short on text in the introductory section, but s have some great photographs of Mars from space probes.  Ben was fine with my quickly reading him the summary – Earth has set up a colony on Mars, but the project has gone astray, and the Mars colony is in danger of collapse. I as “Governor” would play various citizens on Mars – anyone he interacted with, and he would play Kelly, the person sent to Mars from Earth as “Saviour” to try and resolve the situation there.

The actual mechanics of the game are very simple. The set up takes a little bit of thought however…

When Kelly arrives on Mars there are four political parties, whose colours are Red, Blue, Yellow and Green. These parties can be dominant, minority or fringe. In both games I have played two dominant parties deadlocked the political process, with one minority and one fringe party.  And now the clever bit – the players each think of two real world political parties they have some knowledge of the ideologies of – and these four parties comprise the four parties on Mars.

Now actually it is easier than it may sound to choose four parties. You probably know a bot about politics in your country (assuming it is not a one party state), and in both games we found we could find parties both players grasped some of the ideals of. Not agreed with – that is not necessary – just understood.  Now if you don’t know a lot of politics, just look up parties in another country  on Wikipedia, or go with caricatures of what you think the parties believe – exact agreement is not necessary. What was noticeable was while in each game we had a mainstream right wing party and a slightly further left part, for the other two parties we chose rather er, extreme, options. And that works really well! In one game a Martian party based on UKIP wanted Mars to sever its tiers with Earth, and end to unlimited immigration, and to cut back the state and increase the private sector; the Martian Greens in another game (a fringe party) favoured the removal of humanity (and all traces of the colony) from Mars, and were slightly sinister – unlike my first game where they were benign and were attempting to protect the ecosystem and help minimise the harm cause by settlement. 🙂 How you view the parties will tend to unfold in game, and if my experience is anything to go by does not reflect your own real world politics 🙂

Also, you write down on index cards (or rough paper) some real world issues and grievances you have against  governments (I’m assuming you are playing this in a country where this is safe to do – it is a game after all! If not, choose someone else’s government, like for example the poor US govt. record on race relations historically or the British history of colonialism or the … you get the picture). These can be very vague “I hate it when politicians exploit power for their own game” or specific “I think the selling off of the Post Office was a major scandal as the price was far too low”. A couple of these are drawn as themes to explore in the game.

tckFinally there are three specific issues that need to be faced. Kelly must find solutions to all of them. In the first game  the “others”, “terrorism” and “immigration” were the problems which made for a rather dramatic game. In tonight’s game the themes were “atmosphere”, “communications” and “energy” – more low key, but still made for a tense game at times.  My job was defining the problems, well with Ben, and then thwarting his plans to resolve them by endless issues I threw at him as I thought of them.

Finally you roll a couple of dice, to determine one person who Kelly knows on the planet. In the first game it was his missing father who lived out in the Martian outback (and was actually leader of the eco-warriors who threatened the community as it turned out in play); in the second game, it was a former school friend now second in command to the pacifist Head of Security.

Oh yes – the organisation sheet, details 16 NPCs – 4 from the Media, 4 from the Earth Council, 4 from the Mayors Office and 4 from the Colony Council. They are invoked by both the player and GM in play, as relationships are forged and political allegiance determined, and compromises sought.

The actual games plays much like any other RPG: a conversation between the Referee and the player, the “saviour” Kelly.  In tonight’s game for example Kelly decided to set up an office staff in his hotel to handle communications, win over the Head of Media, and make a series of public appeals and public information broadcasts explaining why atmospherics were disrupting communications with Earth (solar flares were involved) and what the Government were going to do about it.  In this case using a series of lasers communications were sent via a monitoring station in the outer solar system; it’s asteroid defence role was replaced, which led to a close shave when a chunk of rock was detected too late as it whizzed past Earth. 🙂

The Luck of the Dice

The scenes can be a lot of fun to play, but both players have to be really on their toes. It is easy to go blank or despair as the player as the problems seem insurmountable — and the referee needs to be perverse and men spirited to keep thinking up new problems and piling the pressure on. An important part of the game is how Kelly evolves as a person faced with this terrible task – however the mechanics don’t allow much time for introspection. Unlike most RPGs there is  a WIN condition here – Kelly’s player needs to amass twenty resolution point in each problem.

Now here is a rather important disconnect. While I never let the players end the scene and roll for a resolution until I  felt dramatic cutting left us with some real progress or character development, the mechanic here stands completely independent of how the scene played. You roll 2 six sided dice, sum them, and add that many points to the resolution of that problem. If either dice shows a one, then you need to make difficult choices – but  the number of points gained towards resolution have nothing to do with how well you played or planned your actions in the preceding scene. Actually this may be far more true of modern politics than most people realise, but I thought it might frustrate the players. It die not. They understood the dice mechanic here at the end of the scene drives storytelling, and no dice are thrown during the scene – that is pure storytelling.

Really I hesitate to use the word game. IT is, because you can win or lose, and their is an element of skill. However MOST of the enjoyment of the game comes in collaborative storytelling, and seeing what emerges from your (oppositional) control of the narrative.  the dice mechanism is important – and there is some skill here – indeed the choices you make determine if you win or lose rather than anything else – but the dice system and the narrative part of the game are really quite separate.

wpid-20150103_033047.jpgSo the dice – if either comes up one, you must move a token from your Admired Circle (everyone loves you when you arrive on Mars, so you have all 9 tokens there) to Contempt – as people start to despise you for your failings – and score no points towards solving the problems. It’s not a good feeling, as you only have 9 turns to gather 20 points in each; and you roll quite a few ones. Still you put your hands up, admit your solution failed, and describe how the situation gets worse and the protests that follow. If you earn 5 points of contempt, that is it – Game Over, you are recalled to Earth in disgrace.

There is another option, that lets you keep those valuable points. You can choose to lie. Now I am sure no politician would ever do such a dastardly thing as lie to the public to cover up their own failures, but yes, in this game such a reprehensible thing can happen. This way you still get the points, and there are no consequences. Well probably not – though you must roll just in case of Scandal, the chance of which gets greater the more you lie. In tonight’s game Ben as Kelly resolved the last of the colony problems on the final turn, and only needed one point being on 19 already – but then rolled a 1. Unfortunately he needed the points (well one of them) to win, so he decided to lie (for only the second time). He rolled the Scandal Test, the dice were against him – two 1’s  and that was it, the mother of all scandals engulfed him. 🙂  Ge did better than Richard, who came nowhere near to solving the colony’s problems.  organisationchart

You would still struggle however to solve the three problems, were you not able to keep rolling in the resolution phase. If no 1’s come up on your first throw, you can choose to roll again and sum the total. You might get lucky, but you are more likely to roll a 1 and have to choose between deception or contempt. Still, you have to take risks…


The dice system delivers; the disconnect with the narrative meat of the game is not as jarring as it sounds, in fact you only notice it when you sit back afterwards. Unlike quite a few games, skill is more important than luck I think – you are making meaningful choices about what to do with the dice. The luck element is high, but not as high a some RPG experiences. (I once downed a Minotaur Stormbull with a single critical hit from my Duck adventurer in Runequest 2e, killing the character who had been bullying mine!)

The game follows the indie tradition of doing one job, being a game about one thing – in this case Kelly Perkins attempt to save Mars Colony – but doing it well, with tightly focussed mechanics.  The game is suited to 2-3 hours play. if you play light hearted or as a serious drama, it delivers, but we tried to play fairly straight.  Both players enjoyed it, and wanted to play again sometime. And really and honestly, it does a better job of politics than most games. The organisation chart to my mind could do with a bit more fleshing out – something more like the Board-game  Kremlin perhaps, but I am pretty sure Tim C Koppang left it as he did for good design reasons. This is a carefully thought out, intelligent game, which offers a very interesting and different play experience. As it is almost unique in my experience, I shall give it 8 out of 10, given it slow price and excellent repeat play potential. It won;t be to all tastes – some people really may not enjoy it – but if you have a hankering to explore politics and play a somewhat adversarial GM versus player rpg, then I can recommend Mars Colony.

Mars Colony is $6 pdf, $12 paperback and $15 book + pdf (+  postage) and you can get it here or from Indie Press Revolution.  Physical copies are available in the UK from Leisure Games for £9.99

I ran the game from pdf using my Samsung Galaxy S4 as my Hudl in for repair with no problems. Once you understand the rules you don’t have to refer to the document much.  My copy review copy was purchased, though I do welcome games to review, though can make no promises on the time-scale owing to pressure of other commitments. Contact me at chrisjensenromer@hotmail.com

cj x

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