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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Boardgame Review: OGRE (Pocket Edition) by Steve Jackson Games

A 2 player game about a giant robot mega-tank (the OGRE) as it ploughs towards through the defenders killing everything in the way…

wpid-20141228_172649.jpgBack in my school days in Bury St Edmunds, there was a little boat enthusiasts shop called the Bury Boatique, hidden away round the back of a house in Eastgate Street. Sometime in the late 70’s or early 80’s, Mr James who ran it started to sell games and wargaming miniatures, and soon it was where all my pocket money went.  At some point I picked up Metagaming’s RPG published as piecework, The Fantasy Trip, or at least the first part, Melee (I still have it somewhere!) and shortly thereafter I picked up a couple of micro-games, very cheap little boardgames that came in a bag and had minimal components.  One of these games was Metagaming’s 1977 classic, OGRE.

Now the designer Steve Jackson (USA — not to be confused with Steve Jackson UK)  left Metagaming and set up his own company, and had his first really big hit as far as I know with Car Wars, and later with his RPG GURPS, and I picked up a  supplement for  OGRE,  called GEV (Ground Effect Vehicle)  which luckily I still  have in my bedroom at my parent’s house! :).

Back to the Future

Skip forward  to 2014, and I have grown fatter, my hair is far more sparse, and now as then I have little money. Steve Jackson Games are still going strong, and they raised almost a million dollars on Kickstarter for the OGRE Designers Edition. I missed it, but I got to see it at Continuum 2012 where a very enthusiastic MiB demo’d it and ran a tournament that Hugh and Lloyd played in.  I now live in Cheltenham, and about a year ago Ben at Proud Lion got a copy in – it was retailing at around £80, and I was not going to pay that — I might have, but I don’t have that sort of money, I wish I did — but when in 2014 I saw he had OGRE Pocket Edition, almost an exact facsimile of the first Steve Jackson version (but with art from the Metagaming original? Not sure!)  for the 1977 price of $3, or $3 in this country – well I grabbed it off the shelf. I even bought Lloyd a copy, as this is famously the only boardgame he has ever liked and agreed to play!!! 🙂

So for me this was an exercise in nostalgia, but also a chance to combine it with my copy of GEV and play for the first time in 30 or more years.  So how does it hold up? Well some of the predictions, like automated warfare (drones!) are coming true – but is this still a fun game, and does it have anything to offer the Eurogamer generation?wpid-20141228_164607.jpg

Well I really enjoyed it, and Phil who I introduced it to thought it OK, but he would prefer to play other games! It had clearly been a long time, as I had to look up how terrain works on the oh so simple map (answer: not much, it restricts movement a little but you can fire over it) and more importantly how movement works for OGREs – 3 movement points per turn, assuming tracks undamaged. Finding that in the rules was actually a bit of a challenge!

So I still have not said what the game is about.  It is pretty simple – an OGRE is a vast huge robot tank, armed with missile launches, rail guns that fire tac-nuke shells, and lots of anti-infantry weapons, and it is played by one player, and is his only piece. The defender tries to stop the OGRE getting in range of (and hence destroying) the defenders Command Post, and if it is destroyed, tries to stop the OGRE escaping back off his end of the map. To do this the defender has GEVs – hovertanks, heavy tanks, light tanks, missile tanks and infantry units.  Each counter has a D value (Defence) a M value (movement) and a X/x, so for example 4/2 – a strength 4 attack with a range of 2.wpid-20141228_172514.jpg

You work out the ratio of Attack Strength to Defence Strength, round in the defenders favour, roll a dice and consult a chart that will instantly be familiar to people who played Avalon Hill or SPI hex based wargames, but is hardly mentally taxing even if you have no idea what I am on about!   So with Attack Strength 6, hitting a tank with Defence 2, you roll a dice and consult the 3:1 column.

It’s hard to get over how basic and ugly the map is in this reprint of the first edition – the GEV map was marginally better – but I recall making my own maps. You can easily do this nowadays too.  There is also tons of fan support – including an OGRE map editor for XP/98. Another good fan site with maps can be found here and Steve Jackson maintain their own OGRE page here.

So how did the game play? Unlike GEV I would say OGRE makes for a great solitaire game, as the OGRE player (Phil in this case) has less to do. He chooses which of the defenders units to target true, and his movement tactics, but after that he just rolls the dice a lot as his weapons annihilate the defending units.  With the exception of Howitzers – expensive and vulnerable immobile big guns the defender can use – the OGRE has the longest ranged weapons, and can annihilate most of the defenders units before they get close.

The defender really has their work cut out, but the classic scenario (Mk3 OGRE versus a lot  of  infantry and some armour) is pretty well balanced as I recall. Not in this game – despite Phil having some appalling luck, my weak tactics as the defender let him slaughter me.  The game ended in a total victory for Phil, with him blowing up my Command Post AFTER he has wiped out every other one of my units. So if this appeals to you, let me give you some defender tactics I’m now recalling after 30 years…

Tactics for the Defence

wpid-20141228_172451.jpgWhereas the OGRE only has to get to within 5 spaces of your Command Post, no die roll needed, to destroy it, you need to immobilize his OGRE and take out all the weapon systems. In hindsight and with vague memories of my youthful gaming – I was under ten years old though – make sure your Command Post is secure not by putting troops around it – he can shoot over them – but by hitting him with everything while he is still as far away as possible. You have to be up close to actually hit him, so the carnage will be terrible, but crowd in as many units as you can to maximise firepower.  “Get their fastest with the mostest” as the old military adage has it.

Now an important rule I overlooked – if you hit his tracks you do damage equal to your attack strength… While I took out Phil’s main battery with a lucky shot from a Heavy Tank, and yes you should fire at the Main Battery (can only take one hit) combining fire if possible, and then take out those awful missile systems (he has two) ultimately you buy more time by taking out his tank tracks. He has 45 points of Track, but every 15 destroyed slows him by one hex a turn movement and buys you more time. You will need to stop him anyway, so do this as quickly as you can. a couple of Howitzer units can with luck quickly bog him down, as every hit (1 n 3 chance) does 8 points to his tracks. Of course they are immobile, and he will destroy them as soon as he closes on them, but I think it is worth the gamble.  Once you have taken out his main weapons, use your tanks to chew up his Anti-personnel weapons (8) before any infantry go near the OGRE.

And the most important bit – GEV hovertanks move, then fire, then move again. So zoom in on your turn, shoot, and run away. They are pretty weak but they are fun to use. Anyway, hopefully you will do far better than I did today!


I like this game a lot – but there is an element of nostalgia. Priced at three pounds though, it would be silly not to buy it? You will need a six sided dice and some paper, though I have since discovered that rather than recording the OGRE stats (weapons and track armour) on a piece of paper I could have downloaded a rather good free app named OGRE War Room that I now have on my Android phone (I expect there is an iPhone version) and which does handles all this, and dice rolls etc. You still need the boardgame- there has not been a computer version of OGRE since 8 bit machines as far as I know, though there is an attractive miniatures version I would like to play, but for three pounds I think anyone can afford it.

The component are very basic, but Winchell Chung’s silhouettes of tanks on the counter evoke happy memories, and they are good quality card stock. The map is awfully, hilariously, dreadful – but entirely usable. The Mk3 and Mk5 OGRE are given stats, but others are available online (including build your own OGRE systems) and this faithfully reproduces the First Edition, though with some clarifications on the rules I think.

I don’t think Becky will ever want to play this, but she was never a fan of games like  Vietnam, Advanced Squad Leader, Air War or  Freedom in the Galaxy.  She is simply not a wargamer, or interested in military themesyet even so, if she tried it I think she might enjoy the simple tactical challenge and surprising depth of this venerable, creaky, astonishingly basic but still amusing classic. I shall award the pocket edition a score based upon the price of £3 -it has to be 10/10!


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Boardgame Review: Pandemic – The Cure



As Christmas approaches I guess now is an opportune time to remind people that last year I listed a number of great boardgames that people might seriously be glad to get in their Christmas stockings. Like my friend Lloyd, I never liked boardgames much (though I did briefly play Magic the Gathering in the mid-90’s!)  until I discovered Ticket to Ride and was immediately sold on the new wave of Eurogames. I believe the second boardgame I bought back then, and played very heavily for weeks thereafter, many times a day, was Z-Man Games Pandemic.

Now Pandemic is reviewed on this blog, and let me start with what is really the conclusion of this new review – while Pandemic The Cure is a completely separate stand alone game, it is really exactly the same game with different mechanics. if that sounds confusing, well, let me offer some quick advice –

A. This is a collaborative game – the players play together against the game system, and all win or all lose.  You are not competing against the other players, just against the game! You play specialist trying to contain disease epidemics and save humanity,

B. This is an excellent game, rated highly by the four of us who have played it so far, and as good as the original Pandemic game.

c. This is a stand alone game, not an expansion — having said that…

D. The mechanics are much more abstract than in Pandemic – so I strongly advise you to buy or at least play that game first. It’s as good as the new one, just different, and you will appreciate Pandemic: The Cure much more if you have played Pandemic first!

E. If you own and enjoy Pandemic, I suspect you will really enjoy Pandemic: The Cure

For the rest of this review, having established the above, I  am going to assume some familiarity with Pandemic, even if only from reading the detailed review on this blog here.

Becky takes a move

So what is it about?

In this game Matt Leacock has simply reinvented Pandemic to use a different set of mechanics, and with custom dice as the core mechanic, rather than the cards cubes and board of the original game.  It’s not just thematically similar, it is really the same game – but the difference in mechanics makes it very different in play.  As a result you will want both. Ticket to Ride did something similar with a custom dice variant, which we all disliked intensely, and which we have not played since the week we bought it – here we the new game just as much as the old one. It is different enough to appeal, familiar enough to seem good old Pandemic – and to be fair I have not actually played Pandemic much since Z-Man brought out the 2nd edition with different card backs meaning the second expansion was incompatible with my earlier games, and only making the replacement cards to upgrade available from Canada at an extortionate price when you added in postage. That was to me as a 1st edition customer enough to annoy me in to deciding to buy no more of their games — I’m glad  I relented, though still deeply annoyed. (I ended up using horrid card covers that slip so don’t play Pandemic any more.)

So what is the difference? 

Pandemic: The Cure (PTC henceforth) dispenses with the city cards, the cities on the map board, in fact all cards from Pandemic except for a number of Special Events (versions of those from both Pandemic and the On The Brink expansion).

Instead of a board you begin with six cardboard circles, numbered one to six – and 12 dice in 4 colours, representing the four diseases in Pandemic, are placed randomly on these. Like disease cubes in Pandemic after each player turn you add more dice/cubes, and diseases can outbreak. Every game we played that we lost – 7 out of 9 – ended with us reaching 8 outbreaks, but the game can also end if you run out of dice/cubes to place on the regions, which we played carefully to avoid, or if you reach the end of the contagion track, which despite rolling astonishingly badly in one game never happened. wpid-20141220_231542.jpg

The regions are the 5 continents of the original Pandemic, with the Indian subcontinent split off.  The disease dice in red, yellow, black and blue drawn randomly from the “infection bag” are very attractive, and while six sided are not numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 as you might expect, but are instead numbered to reflect the prevalence of different diseases in a region in the original game – so Europe is particularly susceptible to Blue disease dice.

The “board” takes up about half the space of the original game, perfect if you don’t have a large table – but this game is not suitable for trains or travel. The beautiful custom dice are just that custom – and losing one, and this game is full of plastic dice, well that is it for your game. You need all the dice!  Whatever you do, don’t lose them – if one drops on the floor stop and look for it immediately.

wpid-20141220_230054.jpgThis is made more true by the fact that each role – all familiar I think to Pandemic with On the Brink expansion players, though I can’t remember if the Contingency Specialist appears in that game. Each role now comes with a set of custom dice, in the colour of that role, and different from any other role’s dice. The dice give you options – travel by ship, fly, cure, or collect samples, or disastrously a biohazard marker which advances the contagion track and increases the virulence (and number of disease dice placed on the regions at the end of your turn), Most roles also have some special symbols which give them additional options. wpid-20141220_230354.jpg

On your turn you roll the dice 5 for every role but the Generalist who gets 7 – and then spend them in any order, except the Biohazard dice resolve first. You may keep re-rolling any dice until you use them on your turn, but each role increases the chance the biohazard symbol will come up and increase the infection rate on the contagion track. The custom dice are very pretty, and make for genuine tactical choices.

When you remove disease counters they now pass to the “Treatment Centre” in the middle of the “board” from which samples have to be taken. Some dice will from time to time comes up with a + symbol and placed in a pool in the CDC, and may be used by *any player* at * any time* to buy one of the three Special Event cards always turned up. We really liked this – it is far less luck based and more tactical than the old Pandemic special events.

The role of luck

My initial thought was that this game would be much less strategically challenging and far more luck based than Pandemic. Surely all these dice make for more randomness? Actually I think the balance is nicely met, and PTC is like Pandemic a game that rewards careful planning, but in which, yes, luck does play a significant role. It always did in the original game, and I think that is part of its appeal. Things can turn bad very quickly, and you have to constantly judge whether to re-roll a dice to get an action you want at the real risk of tipping the balance further towards a loss as disease takes over by rolling a biohazard symbol!

Nowhere do you feel the luck of the dice as much as in the “Cure Disease” mechanism. As in the original game you win by curing all 4 diseases (though unlike the original game you can never eradicate a disease totally), and to do this you collect sets of samples taken from the “treatment centre” in the middle. However each sample must be “bottled up” by one of your Role dice, reducing the number of actions you have until you finally cure that disease. It is much easier than in the original game to pass samples from one player to another, but when you get enough – probably 3, though the Scientist could perhaps manage with 2, and 4 is often best – you can try and cure the disease.wpid-20141220_224331.jpg

Unlike Pandemic where you have to race to a research centre (they don’t feature in PTC) you can try at the end of any turn. Unless you are in the same region as the Scientist (who makes it 2 easier) you gather up the disease dice, and try and roll a total of 13+, with + symbols counting as zero. Now remember the disease dice are not numbered 1 to 6 – at least one face has a + (zero here) and the other vary – I have not checked the maths. Experience suggest 3 dice of samples MIGHT just let you cure the disease, 4 often works and 5 is pretty much guaranteed if you can get that many together. If you fail your role action dice stay bottled up another turn, but at least you can try again then. And as in Pandemic, if you cure a disease, you can remove satisfying numbers of cubes…

In poor taste?

Z-Man have released this game at a time when an Ebola epidemic is afflicting parts of West Africa causing vast misery and suffering. Is this in horrendous taste? This is the kind of thing that makes me queasy – still I do find playing Pandemic actually has made me more aware of the work of the CDC and other organisations that combat epidemics worldwide ( I see no reason why you should have to play CDC and not any other international relief or medical organisation though, but it is an American game) and at least a little good has come from it, with Pandemic parties arranged to raise funds to fight Ebola. You can find details and how to host one here.

Because we were reviewing the game, we did not ponder the morality of it. It seems in no worse taste than Monopoly (a celebration of predatory capitalism) or most wargames – and in fact here celebrates the heroic struggle against disease. I have examined my conscience and decided it is OK to enjoy this game, but it has made me decide to donate more to the struggle. And as Tom noted, not just Ebola – there are diseases we have cures for where funding can definitely prevent deaths today.

Still, I felt it worth noting…


wpid-20141220_224324.jpgAn excellent game, with attractive well made components. Our plastic ring had one hole (the zero on the Outbreaks) imperfectly drilled making it hard to put the green hypo marker in, but other than that minor flaw the components, especially the dice, are attractive and well designed, and the cardboard regions are sturdy and workmanlike if not attractive. The role cards show a mix of genders, if that bothers you, and are well illustrated and fairly clear. The rules need careful reading, but once you spot the differences from Pandemic, and actually play, it all falls in to place. Do check the rules booklet on each new element when you first play, but if you are used to Pandemic, this should be exceptionally easy to learn. The box says age 8+ – I would have thought age 10+ – and it is not a game I would buy someone aged younger than 13.  It is really for adults, and intelligent, sober adults – it requires too much concentration to play after more than a couple of beers! Supposedly it lasts 30 minutes, though most of games were nearer 45 minutes, but I have played three times in two days with different players and each time we enjoyed it enough to fit 3 games in. It is fairly addictive.

If you enjoy Pandemic, or used to but have since found it grew stale, buy this game. If you are a Robert Smith fan hoping for the boardgame of Disintegration, best avoided 😉

Overall 9/10

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The Presence and the Press: Once Again Science Journalists Tell Us Ghosts Explained Away!

OK, I blog very rarely nowadays, but I thought I had best respond to all the press excitement caused by an article from Current Biology, which pretty much everyone (including the authors) seem to think explains away “ghosts”.  You should quickly read about it here or on the BBC News or pretty much anywhere on the web. So does it explain spooks away like the cock crow? Hard to tell without a copy of the full text of the article, but I’m going to doubt it for now. 😉 Entitled “Neurological and Robot-controlled Induction of an Apparition” by Blanke et al. the articles abstract is as follows –

 Tales of ghosts, wraiths, and other apparitions have been reported in virtually all cultures. The strange sensation that somebody is nearby when no one is actually present and cannot be seen (feeling of a presence, FoP) is a fascinating feat of the human mind, and this apparition is often covered in the literature of divinity, occultism, and fiction. Although it is described by neurological and psychiatric patients  and healthy individuals in different situations, it is not yet understood how the phenomenon is triggered by the brain. Here, we performed lesion analysis in neurological FoP patients, supported by an analysis of associated neurological deficits…

 You can read the full Abstract here.

Bold claims! However this is an interesting and useful study in to the neurology of proprioception, defined by the dictionary as

Proprioception (/ˌproʊpri.ɵˈsɛpʃən/ PRO-pree-o-SEP-shən), from Latin proprius, meaning “one’s own”, “individual” and perception, is the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement.

The parts of the brain involved are the PCML for conscious proprioception and the dorsal and ventral spinocerebellar tracts for unconscious proprioception. THis study may show us more about the sense of presence – I know little about it, though Dr James McHarg published on it in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (JSPR) back in the 1980s with relation to the sense of presence, and I seem to recall addressed the SPR on the subject.

Society for Psychical Research

Society for Psychical Research

Certainly parapsychologists have been interested in the subject, and James McHarg got me interested in Temporal and Parietal Lobe Epilepsy in terms of explaining anomalous experience – an idea whose time was probably the mid-90’s, and now seems peculiarly dated to me. However back in 2011 my friend the fantastic Emma McNeill covered this well in a Fortean Times article – TLE and Anomalous Experince 

So the new article builds upon ideas that have been kicking around in parapsychological and Fortean circles for a while  (for about forty years in fact – from 1974) and the experimental validation of the idea is of course cool. Of course – there is a problem, and a serious one. You guessed that, right?

Emma’s article includes a few things I’d take issue with. Persinger’s God Helmet work that is invoked in the Nature coverage and Emma’s FT piece , unrelated to this experiment (Persinger was not an author or involved) has been severely critiqued by Per Grandvist – but that is not the issue here. I merely sound a note of extreme caution. No the issue here is in a line from Emma’s article

“Ghost sightings are easiest, with the sudden chill, sense of foreboding and looming presence.”

And here is my problem. In fact, while we all may nod in agreement,  studies of the apparitional experience by Sidgwick et al (1894), D.J. West (1948, 1990) and Smith (2013) have actually shown that these three elements – a drop in temperature, foreboding before the experience, and  a “presence” – occur extremely rarely, in fact in 0.5% to less than 2% of apparitional experiences studied.

They are of course staples of *ghost fiction* – both literary and TV/film – but in first hand percipient reports they are rare. Now Smith did find that 4.5% of her “disturbances” cases – those which involved purported physical movement of objects or other physical phenomena – included reference to a sense of presence; but bear in mind this “haunting” category reflects experiences over time – the “presence” seems to arise as an explanation for the phenomena? Even then, it is rare.

Now of course there are well known cases of “presences” – most notably those experienced by high altitude mountaineers, like that famous reported by Reinhold Messner on Nanga Parbat , (See for example Brugger et al (1999) “Hallucinatory experiences in extreme-altitude climbers” in Neuropsychiatry Neuropsychol. Behav. Neurol. 12: 67–71) This may well explain them. These are not however seeming related to the common or garden spook experience! rubber hand   Post Ehrsson’s rubber hand experiments which were wildly reported as explaining Out of the Body Experiences a while back ( Ehrsson et al , (2005)  “Touching a rubber hand: feeling of body ownership is associated with activity in multisensory brain areas” in the Journal of Neuroscience 2005; 25: 10564–10573) there has been a lot of interest in proprioception and its role in anomalous experience –  but while parapsychologists have embraced it, as we saw in the Liverpool Hope conference a few years backs papers on OBE, in this case, has the paper really explained anything new about most apparitional experiences despite the title?

Fotheringay church at night, from GSUK fieldtrip.

Fotheringay church at night

Nope. Apparition means “appearance”. The paper deals with a sense of presence, which as I have noted is not usually, or even commonly, indeed hardly “infrequently”, associated with apparitional experiences. Of course no one bothers to ask a parapsychologist, or humble ghost researcher (like myself, or the aforementioned Smith who happens to be my partner and who completed her PhD on the spook experience last year) about this stuff.

Whenever “Science explains X”, no one ever seems to think of asking the small academic group of experts on “x”, whatever “X” may be this week! 😉  You may recall my amusing description of all of the parts of the brain that have been invoked in different competing explanations of the Near Death Experience, or Sleep Paralysis, or — well let’s just say our Science journalists report the same mysteries solved year in year out, with little apparent progress in some topics. The real solutions will one day be uncovered by science i am sure – but for now, we gloss over just how hard that search may be. 🙂 Still despite my cynicism, I suspect some good science lies behind this paper – and yes it might explain some presence cases – juts they don’t have much to do with “ghosts”, and I’m not sure how many mountaineers have a robot tickling their backs – (maybe a robot yeti? ) – still good stuff.  Like the “shadow people” Blanke may well have helped explain in an earlier paper, they simply don’t show up very much in our case files.

A GSUK member participates in an a experiment in Tamworth Castle

A GSUK member participates in an a experiment in Tamworth Castle

I won’t comment on the schizophrenia claims – I have no idea if a “sense of presence” is common in that condition – Aleman and Larøi (1999) do not mention it in their excellent Hallucinations when discussing sensory modalities, but there is a body of medical literature that suggests the primary sensory modality of the disorder varies by culture. I will leave it to Claridge and others qualified  to assess the importance of this research in the medical area – I am afraid I must stick to discussing spooks, or I will never get to bed. I am hopeful something will come of the paper, but who knows? I can probably look up the papers I have read on the sensory modality of illness related hallucinations if anyone needs them, though I expect PubMed will turn plenty up. So to return to the experiment, how did they induce an apparition, that is a hallucination in the visual modality? No idea! I am hampered by the paper being in press. What I am fairly sure is it was not as reported here

But when the movements of the robotic arm were delayed by about 500 milliseconds the participants reported seeing up to four ghosts around them and felt that the robotic finger stroking them belonged to an unseen presence.  (The Independent)

Is this the case? Not that I can see! What actually happened was people who were blindfolded – so it would be hard to have a realistic visual hallucination imposed on the background as in genuine “spook” experiences – were simply unnerved by the feeling of presence. I see no evidence of an apparition (lit. appearance, from the Latin) So where did the journalist get four spooks from? I suspect this passage from Nature

In a further experiment, another set of participants was put in front of four people who were chatting, and told that one or more of them may be in the same room when they carried out the test. During the test, the delayed touch led them to feel that there were several people in the room — even though they remained alone.

So why am I bothering to comment on all this? Well firstly I’d like to congratulate the team at Lausanne, and hope they continue to advance our knowledge of proprioception, and Science generally.  However once again lousy media coverage will make the task of those of us who actually engage with the apparitional experience and what it means that little bit harder, as once again we will be told “Science has explained away ghosts”, just as we were after the interesting work of Tandy and Lawrence some decade ago. So please, please, think critically when you read this stuff, and do always read more widely in the literature of the experience before leaping to wild conclusions… cj X

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Dealing With Ghosts, Part One: Some friendly advice for journalists, T.V. researchers and writers.

Every few weeks I receive a phone call or email from an interested media person, wanting me to help them out with an article, documentary, occasionally a film and sometimes a series. In the past I have cooperated, and have appeared in everything from Women’s Weekly to GQ, even getting a couple of column inches on the cover of The Times one Christmas Day.

I have appeared in ten or eleven different paranormal TV series, and more unusually have also been a researcher for several, and have written for and developed shows for TV (some paranormal related), working for a good number of production companies. While I no longer work in the media, I have experience in front of and behind the camera, understand the industry, the pressures, and the laughs. I have a host of silly anecdotes about my time in TV: and plenty of great stories about my 27 years as a paranormal researcher.

Unfortunately however, when the paranormal as a subject meets the hapless parapsychologist or ghosthunter all kinds of things can go wrong… 😉

Utterly unconvincing ghost

In this short article aimed at the media people, I’m going to try and offer some pointers, some advice, and hell if despite you printing this off and waving it at your Editor/Producer they still demand the impossible, I do consultancy. Details of that at the end though 🙂 The idea is to give you enough material to make do without me.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

So first up, you need people…  Skeptics. Parapsychologists. Ghosthunters. Mediums. Dowsers. Reincarnation Researchers. EVP People, Tableturners. Cryptozoologists. You need an expert? OK, I can probably point you at the person you need, or someone who knows them.  It’s a pretty small field, with most of the “experts” knowing the other “experts” – at least on the academic side of things. I can probably point you to who you might want to talk to, but the key is to know what you are looking for.  Most of the time people don’t, and they have tried to research by reading websites, but sadly that does not really explain much about the culture of the paranormal in the UK.


Essentially you have the academics – boffins if you like – who are experts in some narrow aspect of the field (and know vast amounts about everything else it seems to me). My girlfriend, Becky is one I guess – she defended her thesis last Halloween and has a PhD on ghosts.  No one from the media has ever paid any interest in her research as far as I know, and she is currently working on her book, but actually it was quite fascinating stuff.  If you want someone who REALLY knows their stuff there are the people to turn to – Prof Alan Gauld for example is simple incredibly erudite and knowledgeable about mediumship, poltergeists, apparitions. Steve Parsons is your man for environmental factors that might be related to ghost sightings. Tom Ruffles will certainly be able to provide critical comment on any haunting, and knows far more than I ever will about ghost photos. Cal Cooper is who you call for phone calls from the dead.  So if you want to deal with peer reviewed science, then you should contact the Society for Psychical Research (established 1882) at www.spr.ac.uk and they can point you in the right direction.

SPR logo

If you are north of the border you will also want the Scottish Society for Psychical Research.

Of course it could be that you want a university department that researches parapsychology. The KPU at Edinburgh University can help here – there page contains links to most of the research centres in the UK.

smLogoProf Richard Wiseman is the sceptic most journalists seem to go to first, but don’t forget the APRU where Prof Chris French can provide intelligent comment.  

So yes, those are the academics. And if you are interested in Dr Becky Smith’s work on ghosts, and what she found out, I will happily put you in touch with her. (chrisjensenromer@hotmail.com)

Next up are the non-university experts, whose learning is often equally formidable. I guess most of the ghosthunters can be found here. The premier organisation for paranormal researchers is ASSAP – the Association for Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena. Their website has an incredible amount of resources and the blog is updated regularly, and everything is written in a clear, interesting and non-academic gobbledigook way.

ASSAP Conference

A panel at the 2012 ASSAP Conference underway.

You will find believers and sceptics here, just as in the universities, but there is more interest I think in reaching the general public.  ASSAP will almost certainly know someone who can help you, if your project can be done ethically and usefully (see below). For a really good media communicator from the sceptical side of things who is fiercely intelligent try Hayley Stevens – she will point you to a good sceptic if she can’t help I’m sure.

Scooby Doo

And for sheer history and plenty of experience and expertise you could try The Ghost Club, who may well have what you need.

Now I’m going to concentrate on the ghost side of things now – you can find pagans via the Pagan Fed, I can’t help you there much, and for mystery and out of place animals (panthers, yetis etc) you definitely need the Centre for Fortean Zoology,  UFOLogy? Well the Magonians are fascinating and BUFORA are still going strong. Dr David Sivier has considerable expertise on the academic side and would certainly point you at the right people. I can put genuine journalists in touch with him, as he does not maintain much of a web presence. For psychics and mediums I think Psychic News   and the Spritualists National Union ideal places to start, but for physical mediumship try the Arthur Findlay College and the Noah’s Ark Society.  I could go on for ever – I don’t for example know anything useful about Ganzfeld, Remote Viewing, or various other topics – but you should;d be able to find someone from one of the above who is a bona fide expert.

Finally there are local groups and experts. These can range from the brilliant – for example Parasearch in the West Midlands – to the utterly stark raving bonkers. Many of these groups split, change their names, and become new groups – but often there are a few hardcore folks, who may have considerable knowledge, For a local newspaper, they may well be brilliant, because they have that local knowledge you need, and stories relevant to your readership. Many of the “experts” above may well also be involved with smaller groups like these, and of course there are also authors of books on local ghosts – here in Gloucestershire I think of Lyn Cinderey, Eileen Fry, Bob Meredith, off the top of my head –  who are great for radio or papers or TV. They know their stuff!  You just need to find the right people for the tone of what you want…

CJ and Jo-Dee on a ghost hunt!

CJ and Jo-Dee on a ghost hunt!

If all of this sounds like a lot of work, you can ask me to do it. I do sometimes act as an agent for a number of folks in the field, filtering through media requests and making sure journalists find the right person. You can email me in the first instance with what you are looking for and why – and I might be able to point you to someone. if the request is trivial and just involved me telling you who to speak to which I immediately know it is free – if you require me to poke around and find someone, and set up something, hey then I will expect to be paid. See below. If that has not put you off, you can reach me here. (chrisjensenromer@hotmail.com) or via the following

IN part 2: finding locations, ghost photos, acquiring art and illustrations, and what ideas are simply a waste of time and every commissioning editor has heard them a dozen times before. Plus ethics, and why you probably can’t get anyone to help you do what you want if you want any credibility… 😉

CJ x

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A Serious Warning to University of Gloucestershire Students: They Aren’t Lying To You About Cars (Updated for 2015)

In past years I have written advice for Freshers of the University of Gloucestershire. My friends who work or studied at the uni have added to it. You can find it at Fresher’s Week in Cheltenham: Six Things I Wish I Had Known   This article has been updated for September 2015, with the updates in bold…

This year, a warning. The University has probably told you not to bring your car to uni. You may think this is insane. No, they are sensible. Here is why.

Most housing developments round the college have allocated to them in planning between 0.3 and 0.5 parking spaces per household as far as I can make out. So basically, at best you or your neighbours can park outside your houses.

Now a lot of working families have 2 cars – this is luckily offset by he fact that many people in Cheltenham don’t need a car at all, or can’t afford one, or can’t park the bloody thing. However if a typical student house with 4, 5 or 6 residents (that typical student terraced house was originally built for a family of 2 adults and a kids) all bring a car along – you are going to have hell from your neighbours from Day One. Maybe fortunately, that won’t happen, because you won’t be able to park in your street.

The council has recognised there is not enough parking, so residents – meaning homeowners in the main – can pay £70 or so for a permit which lets them park in their streets, but of course there are only half the number of permits needed.  Most of Cheltenham is covered with these permit schemes, street after street, and you are not going to be able to get a permit.

UPDATE September 2015: The permit scheme has now reached St. Paul’s, so if you park in a street around FCH, and are not a resident of a house there with a valid parking permit, you will be fined £70 each time.  This has already claimed victims in Normal Terrace, because our alleyway does no look like a road and so some of my neighbours assumed the permit scheme would not be enforced here, despite the signs. A friend of theirs who left their car outside cos he had had a few drinks got done on the first day of the scheme.

The permits are assigned at a maximum of two per household; the first one is £50 or thereabouts, the second I believe £100. However I tried to get a second one and was told they were all sold out for my area, and that was on August 3rd, two days after the scheme went live, so I don’t think you are likely to get one.

I’m also going to stray off topic and note that my housemate, a strong willed woman who has lived in the area for  over a decade, no *longer* feels safe on parts of the Lower High Street or around Swindon Road after dark on her own. I have taken to meeting her, but I feel a bit worried at times on the Lower High Street myself now. This is a fairly recent development – within the last year – and there has been added security cameras and so forth after some attacks on women around the Swindon Road/Matalan car park area, but I saw a couple of young ladies chatting tonight in what I thought was a pretty dodgy place where I would certainly not loiter, and they seemed quite comfortable.

Cheltenham is a very safe place indeed, with a few mildly dodgy areas, but a quick search on public data shows between 60 and 90 incidents of “violence or sexual assault” per month in 2015 within one mile of FCH, or about two and a half a day – though incidence is higher in the warmer months, and yet drops over July – no students around? Dunno? You can check out the stats here. A one mile radius of FCH covers most of the town centre, but click on the area button to see.  Now fear of crime is probably a bigger problem than crime at times, and the odds of you being attacked by a stranger are  very low, but please be sensible! 

So if you bring a car, where can you park it? Well you can rent an off-road parking space or garage- they are like gold dust, and the one we have costs £800 a year, but anything from £800 to £1000 is reasonable. If you will be driving home every week, or to work somewhere not serviced by public transport, that is one solution. Another is Cheltenham is well serviced with car parks – but it is going to cost you at least that much and involve getting up to put tickets on your car unless you can buy a season ticket.

Now if you park your car near a couple of our sites, its pretty likely to be vandalised, broken in to or wrecked anyway, because these areas are not actually *very nice* – and if you park outside someone’s house, they might just torch your car. Now things are much better than twenty years ago, but seriously, I have lived here for decades now and I would not take the mickey out of the locals around FCH or Hardwick; I am have a healthy respect for my teeth. Violence is uncommon  – I was the victim of unprovoked violence in day time on the streets only twice in all my student years, and I was unlucky — but seriously, as some of my friends who live in St Pauls and can’t get their cars off their drives because the four students in the house across the road all brought a car will tell you — annoying your neighbours is a bad idea in these parts. You are going to have a bad time.

Still, if you figure you can afford the insurance, aggro and prescriptions/dental work, you could bring a car. However what good is it? If you are in Cheltenham in any sensible student housing you are close to either the town centre or Bath Road, and it is unlikely you will need to drive anywhere. I have lived here since 1987 without a car, 27 years now. I went nightclubbng, shopping, and to lectures on all campuses, and was just fine.

Students who park in St Pauls often regret it!

Students who park in St Pauls often regret it!

Still you are determined. OK, so you drive to The Park, or FCH, and then what? There is uni permit parking, and some space in the car parks for those with special needs, but they cost.  Otherwise, you can just drive round the streets looking at the permit only parking areas designated for residents, and wondering what the hell you do now.

So don’t being a car. There is a fine inter-campus bus service, which I campaigned for back in the late 1980, so you can thank me later. It has stopped being free a couple of years back, but it will get you from A to B. Or there is the Honeybourne Cycle Path,  Have a look at this guide to cycling in Cheltenham – especially the map. Copies are usually available from FCH and possibly Park Reception.

From FCH or Hardwick it is a minutes ride to a path that leads up to this mercifully flat (no gradients as former railway line) route which will take you up to the Railway Station, where you can cut through on to the Landsdown cycle path to St Stephen’s Road then down to The Park; 2.38 miles of easy cycling. From Pitville Halls cut through by the Pump Room, down the hill to Pitville Park and through to Tommy Tay;ors Lane then join the Honeybourne by the Leisure Centre. Cycling is extremely popular in Cheltenham right now, and if you do run in to the problems you can at least out-pedal any hassle one hopes. 🙂

So yes I have painted a bleak, but I think realistic picture. Use the bus, walk or cycle. Don’t bring your car to university, unless you can afford to pay for parking. It’s going to get even worse as the Permit Scheme finally reaches the far side of St . Pauls and Peters this year,

And hey it’s not all bad. Here are some University of Gloucestershire ghost stories for you!

FCH Hall with fake ghost


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The One About How CJ came to LARP… Part One: The late 1970s/ early 1980’s

Tonight  I started thinking about my time in LARP – live action role playing – and what I learned from it. I doubt many people will be interested, but if you are a larper, freeformer or follow me because of my Ars Magica writing you might find something that sparks memories here.  Tonight I’m just going to write on this, even if it is self indulgent and there are much better and more important things I could write about, because I really need to get back in to the habit of writing, and because it’s fun to write about myself because I’m an egotistical maniac. 😀

Playing Games

I started playing rpg’s young – Traveller was my first purchase, and I played D&D at school and then with various friends, but most notably Axel Johnston and  Mark Weston in the early days.  I was a founding member of the Mid Anglia Wargamers club along with Phil Mansfield, and also got to play RPG’s there, and in the mid 80’s sessions of the “Nameless Anarchist Horde” rpg group were regular events on a Thursday night at my parents.  Axel was  hosting his Runequest and Cyberpunk games on a Monday, and Peter Clark was running games on the weekend. RPG was a big part of my life, but I was also a committed miniature wargamer and board gamer, and indeed some of my board game designs I now realise were actually pretty good and far ahead of the curve.

Treasure Trap

However, this is about Live Action RPG, and I guess I first heard of that in the early to mid 1980’s when a company called Treasure Trap started to run adventures at Pekforton Castle – sort of D&D for real. Ever since the invention of D&D back in 73/74 roleplayers had dressed up and gone to conventions, doing what today would be referred to as cosplay. When my gaming friend James moved away to Kent, he returned a few months later (the last time I knowingly  saw him actually)  and told me about how his GM (or DM, Dungeonmaster in D&D parlance dressed up for the game in robes etc. I smiled and said “cool!” but I must admit my first thought was “what a freak he must be!”.  However, going beyond dressing up, and actually acting out the narrative of the game, moving from “rpg as radio play with an improvised script” to “rpg as full costume drama/contact sport” – that was a pretty obvious development too.

Now I have been involved with lots of strands of LARP, and for a long time now – almost 30 years – but I have noted very little interest in the origins of the hobby, and almost no attempts to write a history or LARP. As far as I was concerned Treasure Trap in the UK founded in 1982 was the earliest commercial LARP company, and the only one I had heard of. Curiously the UK roleplaying magazine White Dwarf was to my memory scathing and derogatory about Treasure Trap and “Live Action Role Play” or LARP as it became known, and I seem to recall the word “freaks” and “rubber swords” being used a bit. I may well be wrong — it has been thirty years, and while I still have many old issues laying around, I can’t locate the article or editorials in question, but when the company ran in to difficulties with accusations of financial misbehaviour and general misery in 1985 — the ins and outs of which again I never knew, and only gleaned from an often hostile gaming press – there seemed to be a note of relief.

Now maybe I’m imagining it – if there was hostility to LARP, it was probably on the part of one or two writers anyway – but I think I understood it, and shared it to a certain extent.  D&D and gaming generally had been suffering from the US backlash against the game, led by BADD and the legendary Patricia Pulling, whose son,  a gamer,  had committed suicide.  Worse was to come — Chick Publications brought out Dark Dungeons, possibly the most infamous anti-gaming tract ever in 1984.

Uni & The Dungeonmaster

If that was bad, we were all reeling from something far, far worse. It is so shameful I hesitate even now to mention it in public. Yet I must, and years of therapy mean I can now recall it, and indeed sadistically inflict it upon you. Take 20 minutes to watch this. You will never be the same again…

Yes, the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon really killed 90% of the credibility of the game.  Long before even that however, something to have a more enduring legacy had occurred.

Enter the Steam Tunnels

In 1979 a brilliant but troubled 16 year old prodigy named James Dallas Egbert III had gone missing from Michigan State University.  His parents called in Private Eye William Dear, a tough guy PI of the old school I think from his book. He however also comes over as humane, understanding and pretty liberal — and genuinely out to save hi client, the missing boy.  Dallas, as he preferred to be called had issues with his mother (according to Dear) who had very high expectations from him, but the real issue seems to have been he was far younger than anyone around him, and he was also homosexual at a time when that may have been a bit harder than today. After 30 days Dear got him back – but the media circus that erupted was very much focussed on the fact Dallas was a keen D&D player – though kicked out of the only group who admitted to playing with him for being high all the time it seems — and may have been playing D&D in the 8.5 miles of steam tunnels beneath Michigan State University campus.

Now let us be clear – Dallas was manufacturing heavy drugs, and using them, and involved in gay sex while a minor which could have got his apparently older partners in to huge trouble. The reasons for his disappearance he gave were family expectations, but he may well have had other reasons, or parts of it may have been involuntary, or, well who knows? It was a long time ago, and tragically Dallas killed himself later. His original disappearance was part of a botched suicide attempt, and later he tried again while missing. This is all awful and miserable, but it had nothing to do with D&D.  William Dear however played up the gaming angle, and attempted to play down the drugs and gay angle, and the media got very excited by those steam tunnels which it became clear were used by students to travel and play games and for darker purposes.  Still Dear had uncovered the first LARPERs – and curiously also records in his book that some people were by the summer of 1979 playing D&D on company computers after work hours by modems – putting internet RPG sessions back to 1979.

The Dungeon Master by William Dear US hardback

The Dungeon Master by William Dear US hardback

Now in the USA the Dallas Egbert case was headline news, and it was noted in the papers over here, with the D&D leads to boy vanishing spin I guess. I think many people were more intrigued by what he reported about people playing “D&D live” though. In 1984 Dear published a full(-ish) account of the case, The Dungeon Master, which is often referred to as anti-gaming literature. I have read ever one of the 402 pages and I don’t get that impression at all.  William Dear himself paid sixty bucks (so about £90  in today’s equivalent cash) to a student to run a D&D adventure for him, and narrates it in the book (high on DM fiat, sounds enjoyable though).  He has only positive things to say about the staff of TSR, the game manufacturers, and seems generally positive as do his staff about the geeky SF fans, Tolkien Society members and D&D players they interacted with.  However there was a five year gap between the case and newspaper headlines and his book coming out.

In that time an American author Rona Jaffe wrote a novel that loosely refers to the steam tunnel legends, and in the minds of those who remembered coverage of the Dallas Egbert case might have seemed connected. In fact there may be no connection — because plenty of people other than Egbert had played D&D in the MSU steam tunnels, including according to Dear professors, and his inquiries uncovered a whole subculture of “live D&D players”.  Southern Methodist University and California Institute of Technology had these proto-larpers in the tunnels there; and Dear reports “It was a seven-day-a-week vocation for some students at the University of Iowa” (Dear, 1984, p.163)

What is also interesting is the gender aspect in these larp circles. “Half were girls. Dungeons & Dragons isn’t an arm wrestling contest, it’s a mental game. The women in our group were very imaginative. It got tough in the tunnels, of course, but it  wasn’t the sort of tough that required lifting heavy boxes or duking it out with John Wayne types. The women could handle the conditions as well as any guy.”

(Dear 1984, p.158)

The DM for at least one MSU tunnel game was a woman. I have been trying to work out how the game was played – were there  live combats? – as Dear mentions other campuses where wooden weapons were employed, usually bamboo rattans at this point – but it is not clear from his text.  What we do know is this

“You could get lost very easily. And the conditions were terrible – so hot you thought your brain would boil… The DM would hide treasures, which all of us had chipped in to buy, and the person who found them could keep them.  And there’d be niches you could reach in to. You might come up with a handful of decaying calf’s liver, or soggy spaghetti representing an orc’s brain, or something equally unappetising. Of course you might find a treasure. The DM did not really have to set traps. There were plenty of those already”.

(Dear 1984, p.158)

Rona Jaffe’s book Mazes and Monsters took as it’s plot a steam tunnel game of D&D, or Mazes & Monsters as known here, that goes badly wrong. One of the players becomes obsessed with their character, and ends up, you guessed it, nuts in the steam tunnels. CBS bought the TV rights, a made for TV movie followed, that you can still catch from time to time, probably only because the obsessed boy was played by a very young Tom Hanks. 😉

It’s late, and you have plenty to watch.  Tomorrow I’ll pick up the story in 1985, when for the first time I decided to abandon sanity and head out in to the woods to play D&D live, with no real idea of what I was doing 🙂  What could possibly go wrong? I’ll also reveal the story of “Romeo & Juliet meet the Verona Chainsaw Massacre” the KEGS school KILLER game, and finally our Halloween 1985 attempt at playing Call of Cthulhu Live, which was extremely cool.

And yes, some of this has been embarrassing. Geeky silly sterotypes abound still today, we just laugh at them more. I rather wish my 1985 experience in Lawshall woods – or was it Hartest woods? – had even been as respectable as this video Harry posted earlier — which just goes to show that embarrassing stuff was not exclusive to the 80’s 😉

Night all

cj x

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