"And sometimes he's so nameless"

Report from Grand Tribunal UK 2012

Posted in Games, Reviews and Past Events, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life by Chris Jensen Romer on August 20, 2012

Grand Tribunal is the Ars Magica and Atlas Games convention held annually in the UK and USA. This year the Sixth Grand Tribunal (UK) took place on the weekend 17th-19th August, and featured 37 delegates and 3 authors from the line, but had a smaller than usual international presence.

Friday evening saw most of the delegates gather in Cheltenham, England before heading off to a local pub where we had a room set aside upstairs. While the weather was extremely warm for most of the weekend, we were able to open windows and the room proved much more suited to our needs than the cellar bar we had used in previous years.  Isolated from the rest of the pub it was a private space where we could easily have played boardgames or rpg if we had chosen, but everyone wanted to socialize! one thing that is noticeable about the convention is it has attracted a hardcore of attendees who come very single year, regardless of whether or not they are currently playing Ars Magica, and catching up with old friends is an important part for the experience for many. We even have a few non-gaming ‘friends and family’ who enjoy the event and come along anyway to be sociable, and some of them try a game and get hooked each year. Only the historian David Sivier has so far resisted the temptation to play a game yet come year after year, but we will persuade him next year.  One of the more amusing incidents of the weekend was when  group of us were outside the pub and found this in the window display of an antiques shop. There we found in the shop window display a Jawa and Stormtrooper costume!

Saturday morning as always saw the big Ars Magica freeform conducted.  This year it was Mark Steedman who ran The Tribunal of the Borders, with Loch Leglean and and Stonehenge magi from five covenants trying to resolve their differences and put an end to raiding of the covenants by each other.  This was a good game, and raised really interesting issues about what happens when your grogs belong to clans with a mundane tradition of raiding; the covenants very soon are bound to be drawn in to the conflicts. This is just as much a feature of Hibernia as of Loch Leglean and the freeform really brought it home;  Burnham has been raided with magical assistance from Horsingas, but the raiding clansmen slain in the attack included some from a third covenant that was not directly involved, except by having grogs who shared a clan with the Horsingas clan raiders and therefore had joined the war party without their magi assenting in any way.  There was a huge amount more going on, but I never really learned much of it as my boar Heartbeast Bjornaer was more passionately consumed by his love of truffles, and his motto “I snuffles for the truffles!” It was a marvelous game, and as always people costumed beautifully, and lent costume to others.

After the freeform we took a group photo, with those who wanted to appear, but many players had already changed by the time we had a chance to arrange it back in to normal clothes. Still here are some of the Freeform group…

Some of the freeform "Tribunal of the Borders" players pose after the game...

Some of the freeform “Tribunal of the Borders” players pose after the game…

After the freeform Mystery Playtest One saw a group of magi trying to chase down a diabolist who had betrayed them, and the most outrageous grog ever played by Taryn. Good fun!  It is always good that David Chart allows delegates to sign NDA’s and take part in ongoing playtesting of books that are not out yet for Ars.   At the same time Andrew ran the Oh, Doctor Bi Sheng! – or the Cathedral and the Bizarre, a very popular scenario he wrote set in medieval Quimper, and Anna ran the only 4th edition game of the weekend The Village Ghost, which I heard good reports of too! It is an interesting feature of Grand Tribunal that 3rd and 4th ed. Ars Magica games are still popular, even today, though 5th ed. is dominant now. Two groups who were playing earlier editions have switched to 5th ed. since coming to GTUK last time.

The next session again saw three games; Tom ran Mystery Playtest Two, and Andrew S ran The Jerbiton Summit, a seven player mini-freeform that proved very engaging and featured a House Jerbiton special convention seeking to resolve a Papal Schism – at least I believe that is what it was about, as sadly I never got to play as I was running the other event in the slot (see below). Both proved very popular, and I really look forward to trying The Jerbiton Summit myself next year. You can read the background for it here. 

My game in this three hour slot was based on a real historical event from 1173: The Battle of Fornham, which took place between the rebel forces of the Duke of Leicester and the royalist forces of Henry II under Humphrey III de Bohun and Richard de Lucy, along with the townsmen of Bury St. Edmunds and various other loyalist knights.  Becky, Hugh, Tom Phil and I built the terrain and counters and miniatures, and I believe fourteen players participated in the three hour battle, which despite appearances was as much a normal Ars Magica tabletop game as it was a wargame. I think Nick’s account of Leicester’s experience sums it up nicely —

Poor Robert of Leicester – Luck/God was certainly not on his side that day! His overconfidence led him to lead a heroic charge to destroy the southern bridge (over a drainage ditch), where he was met by Reginald de Dunstanville, Earl of Cornwall. A battle ensued between the knights of Leceister and Cornwall as the Leceister knights attempted to destroy the bridge. Leciester’s knights suffered 3 casualties and took 3 Kent knights prisoner, but Robert himself was gravely wounded against the Cornish lord, who smote Robert’s head open. Eyes full of blood, Robert botched his retreat and fell from his horse. Taken prisoner by Cornwall, who took him bound to the Priory, he remained there  for the rest of the battle. His leaderless knights were overwhelmed by the Royalists, and Cornwall impaled Robert on a red hot poker and hung him from the Priory walls, as a warning to all other godless rebels ;)

Rather more happened than Nick describes, but that was perhaps the deciding moment of the battle, when the dice proved completely against him. I wrote another blog post describing what happened overall from each players perspective, and have asked them to email me accounts of the battle as it was so amusing. Here is a shot of the game in progress, as a vision of Saint Dympna causes many men to fall to their knees (the upside down tiles). Anyway a full report will follow!

Battle of Fornham 1173 game

Battle of Fornham 1173 game

I must say it was huge amounts of effort to put this game together, but I thought it thoroughly worth it.  Utterly chaotic, it really did serve to teach me quite a bit about why Leicester probably lost on the day, and showed standard Ars Magica 5th edition group combat rules can easily handle huge field battles, not just skirmishes, without using the character centered more narrative Lords of Men rules which are still great for typical tabletop play. iN a sense this was coming full circle for me because we playtested the 5th edition group combat rules using the Battle of Fornham as a scenario (part thereof, on a much smaller scale) about a decade ago. Yes, playtesters really do play test rules, despite authors occasional doubts! ;)

After Fornham it was the always popular raffle, and the Meet the Authors session. The Raffle prizes this year included lovely prizes supplied by Atlas Games and by Sub Rosa magazine.  If you play Ars and don’t already subscribe to Sub Rosa you really should consider it now, especially as it is a .pdf download so you can do it immediately!  The Raffle raised £201 for good  causes in the end, plus a small amount more on Sunday I have yet to count. :)

A popular new innovation this year was a deal with Charlie’s Chip Shop arranged by Andrew my co-host, who took orders and then went down and collected the food so much less gaming was missed than in previous years and we could move straight on to the evening session, where The Unquiet Grave by Leif, A Walk in the Woods by Hakon and The Shadow Over Carlisle by Lloyd were run.  I chose not to play in this slot as I was to be honest utterly exhausted, but it worth noting that every session of the weekend (apart from the Friday evening social and the big freeform one) had at least three games running and no one went without a game who wanted to play. In fact we had spare slots in some games, but none so low as to prevent them running, though we did not get round to running Nathan Hook’s excellent To Strive… this year as we had so many freeforms on offer in the end. Note for delegates in future years – please tell me about your game running plans earlier!  Tom & Lloyd and myself each ran two games each, but many delegates offered a game and all three of us would have been happy to run less games and let others act as Storyguides. :) I ran games with 14 and 9 players, without a beta storyguide to help out in others, and as GT grows in popularity we need more games. I’d rather have too much on offer than too little, and if a game has to be dropped because we can’t get the players then it can always be run in later years, as has been shown by games like the Tribunal of the Borders which Mark wrote for last year but finally ran this year to great praise. Next year I think we will introduce a game bidding system, by which potential GM’s will be invited to submit pitches much earlier, and we will have even more games on offer, so some can be smaller and less wearying for the poor harassed storyguides.

 BY the time we closed the venue for the night I was utterly exhausted and ready for my bed, but I ended up doing game prep for the morning and then wandering down to meet a few delegates at the Bon Appetit 99p cafe for breakfast.

Sunday we opened at 10am and ran through till close at 4pm, and there were three games in this session. One was absolutely fascinating – Tom Nowell came up with the idea of running a game with the players as Amazon sorceresses from Rival Magics. Again I never got to play, but I heard good things and it was nice to see some of the Rivals get their day in the sun. I’d like ot hear more about how this game went. :) Lloyd heroically stepped forward again to run Mystery Playtest 3 .

My last game of the weekend was a little unusual, in that written originally for 8 players (!)  I ended up with 9 and had to turn down two more potential players on the morning (they did get to join another game though.) Lost in the Wash once again returned to the pre-1220 period, this time 1217, and my love of East Anglia. It was October 1217, Louis of France has seized the throne and King John was at Lynn desperate to reach loyal allies at Newark, a few days travel away, as the French and Baron’s armies approached. Waking up feverish after a heavy meal of peaches, he gathered together all the people he could trust, and with eight companions set out across The Fens carrying the Crown Jewels of England in their saddle bags. Every student of English history knows what happened next, but you should not believe everything you read in the chronicles… The players were delightful for this game, and it resolved really well at the end just in time for the mad clear up session.

After an evening with the Norwegian delegates I crawled in to my bed last night utterly shattered, but I had a wonderful weekend, saw some outstanding character roleplaying and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Huge thanks are due to so many people that I have posted a Credits file to the GT list, but especial thanks ot Andrew Oakley who as co-host made my ever more ambitious plans possible, and whose magnificent organisation of many aspects of the project meant that everything feel perfectly in to place.

We have not yet confirmed a date or location for 2013, but the default will be Cheltenham again, on the weekend of 16th to 18th August. Don’t make hard plans until it si all confirmed yet, as Cambridge or Trondheim, Norway may yet turn out to be the venue and the date will change then!

Thank you to all the lovely people who attended.

I’ll leave you with a photo of the ever-cool Nick as a wild Scottish magus…

A Scottish magus of Garg Clack in the Tribunal of the Borders game

Review: Continuum 2012 Roleplaying Games Convention

Posted in Games, Reviews and Past Events, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life by Chris Jensen Romer on July 23, 2012

OK, so I am back from Continuum, which was a marvellous experience. In fact the best weekend I have had a in a long time! For those who don’t know Continuum is a UK games convention held bi-annually in Leicester, where people play roleplaying, board, miniatures and freeform LARP games.

This was not my first visit to the convention — I have been before but only as a day delegate, and my time was strictly curtailed by trains and buses. This time I was able to stay two nights, and the accommodation was by University halls standards excellent, with Hugh, Lloyd and myself having three rooms off a shared kitchen/sitting room with loads of space. In fact Leicester Uni students are very lucky — the rooms are nicer than a lot of hotel rooms I have stayed in, and the price very reasonable as conferences go. (We paid £94 total for two nights, including a substantial breakfast). The only issues with the rooms were the heat, which was both unexpected and outside human control,  that many people complained about (my room was very cool and shady, guess I got lucky there) and the fact that one has to be out by 9.30am, but on signing in and being issued keys by the University Accommodation people no one told us that, so most people expected a slightly later time to have to be out by. Fortunately I found out on the Saturday night by asking the night warden, but this led to many people running around in the morning trying to pack urgently as cleaners waited to move in and do the rooms.  Not Continuum’s fault, but a failure with the uni conference facilities to team to make the timings clear. Free car parking was available, but latecomers might have had to park across the road in another (free) uni car park — but overall the facilities were excellent, and the campus well suited to a gaming convention.  Leicester is fairly central, with good communication links, and the Oadby site is only three miles from the city centre. I did not see much on public transport links but I’m assuming it is well served by buses etc. Anyone able to comment on this?

So of course as I work in the industry this was mixing business with pleasure, and I was delighted to network and meet many publishers and have a couple of really interesting meetings. However none of that is at all of interest to anyone but myself, so instead I’ll describe the convention as I encountered it. We drove up arriving on Friday Night as my freeform The Pelorian Song Contest was scheduled for a ten pm start, late to avoid a clash with the Gloranthan Storytelling session. Registering for rooms went smoothly, and I was able to get a quick look at the main gaming hall, where I immediately saw a wonderful miniatures game set in The Rubble (Pavis, a Gloranthan setting) and the Mad Knight trade stall selling beautiful Gloranthan miniatures. Hugh and Biz played a Trolls versus Broo skirmish game on the Saturday, and I wish I had time to participate…

Singing In the Hero Wars…

First event for me was The Pelorian Song Contest. This was a freeform (think a sort of dressing up Murder mystery game. Each player has a set of goals and objectives and a few sheets of paper telling them about their character, what they know and any special items they possess.  They set about trying to win by satisfying that characters objectives by scheming, plotting, talking to others, trading and sometimes “fighting” using a simple non-contact mechanic – in our case paper/scissors/stones).

I had written this game and was the referee, and it is set in Greg Stafford’s fictional world of Glorantha — if you don’t know the setting skip to the next paragraph now). The players were contestants and judges in a song contest representing the various peoples of the Lunar Empire, though dark magical machinations underlay this seemingly innocuous event. The players were a delight, the costuming excellent, and the singing surprisingly first rate (though I stress players did not have to sing — all the singers were volunteers!)

Michael’s witty song about his (character) wife made me laugh and was rather touching, and Rei sings beautifully, and Fiona’s song was very poignant — players chose their own songs and lyrics — and the stirring martial “Men of Furthest” was fantastic, as was the amazing Alkothian entry. The funniest song had to be the  Pelorian Rhapsody sung by Alex, complete with axe solo! I missed some of the singing because I was off in other rooms where an uprising was planned, a moonboat was built and burned, and intrigues and assassinations conducted. One of the characters was dead by the end with a knife in his back; one fled out of a window; the Teelo Norri eloped with a Talastari barbarian, and in the process saved the world; two more were reconciled and their marriage vows renewed, and finally Malk won the First Pelorian Song Contest with his amazing Hungry Sable version of Ghostriders in the Sky, which was VERY Lunar. (Of course voting was on national and political lines, and nothing to do with vocal talent!)  One Night In Massos makes a hard man humble; and very tired! So who won — well most people, though the Assiday clan managed to subjugate the Temple of the Reaching Moon four years early,and Dragon Pass fell under the Glowline. Lloyd’s character may or may not have managed to pull off something spectacular – we left the game with him escaping, pursued by Malk intent on justice and saving the Empire, and despatching three Darjiini assassins on the way!

Anyway really enjoyed the game, and had fun. Thanks to all the players.

Manorcon & Musing

After the Song Contest it was midnight and we retired to the bar, where people partied long after it closed, where I met El ( I try to avoid using peoples names if it will make them identifiable) dressed as a French maid with an egg whisk and a wet stick of celery. yes she had just left Best of the Wurst, the ‘Allo ‘Allo freeform! Hugh wandered off to talk to Tony M and Hanbury, I chatted with Rei and Clare, and then Lloyd told us all about his thoughts on freeforming, at length, because he was very very drunk, in a nice way, and we all had a good time! Rei was very sweet as always, and her warmth and enthusiasm did much to help keep us all going all weekend, not to mention buying me lunch for running Pelorian Song Contest. Much appreciated Rei, I still owe you lunch back!

I got to bed about 4.30am, only to be up at 8 for breakfast and a busy second day. Saturday was a lovely day, and I enjoyed breakfast and was planning to play in Daniel’s OGRE demo and competition.  I was however led astray by Alex, and after spotting a friend from Cheltenham, a fellow gamer, who was attending Manorcon XXX across the road, set off to explore the other convention. It seemed just bizarre that they had about 200 gamers playing boardgames about 100 yards away, at the same university, on the same weekend, but a different campus.  I talked to their organising folks, had a good time looking ta boardgames, including Ticket to Ride India which I had not seen before, and GMT games follow up to Here I Stand, a great looking wargame called The Virgin Queen. I stayed a brief while, had a look round: it seems a crying shame the two cons committees could not come to some joint ticket agreement so we could all mingle somehow!

I returned back to meet up with Biz and old school friend, great to catch up after many years, and as he lives in Leicester we chatted about all kinds of things. One thing that struck me was just how pinkish-grey both conventions were. There were plenty of women gamers, a wider range of ages,  but given the ethnic diversity of Leicester I had thought we might meet more non-pink gamers, from the Black and Asian communities. Neither of us thought gamers are generally racist in anyway — but it was notable that ethnic minorities were reflected far more in the university staff than in the players and con attendees. We had a people from all over the world, but I just hoped Leicester might be more diverse — but Biz and I finally conceded that cultural factors might still prevent a take up of gaming among non-pink (or as most forms have it “white” ) communities.  This is something that hopefully will be addressed, but at the m0ment Football has more racial diversity than gaming as far as I could see, and I think that is a blasted shame.  I’m aware this may be a touchy topic; but gaming crosses class, religious, sexuality and regional divides, so I can’t see why we can not become more inclusive generally in the future. Of course con attendees are a self selecting audience, so this is not a con organisers issue, but something larger about the historical development of the hobby perhaps?

Flimsey Turrets

It was on Saturday afternoon that I got to play Flimsey Turrets, a truly wonderful game modelled clearly on Fawlty Towers. Clare made a wonderful axe murderer, and the props and location were first rate. I’m used to talky games, and this one was at times a very ‘physical’ larp – up and down the stairs we went, round a building that seemed just perfect for the game. I played Cecil Flimsey, and by the end I was unutterably exhausted, indeed close to breakdown, but I have not laughed so much on a long time. Graham”s Stanley Bodgettt the Builder will haunt me for years! I had immense fun, even if I completely lost the plot, in both senses. :) Great game, worthy of many more runs. I was Celil Flimsey, manager of the hotel and a man with problems, and as the game started I was awakened to find an axe murder was slaying hotel guests (and my Spanish waiter, Miguel, who came from Barcelona…) While no John Cleese I can do barely suppressed hysteria, and I ran around in an increasingly frantic state, making things worse and shouting a lot, stalking down corridors and hysterically trying to cover up the failings of my hotel…  It was this game that led to me appearing afterwards in my specially bought pyjamas and pink fluffy slippers in the main gaming hall, as I had come straight down from the game! I got to know Ryan a top bloke and Chris Killey who is another fantastic role-player in this game, and yet by the end I was ready for absolute collapse. I have no idea how John Cleese managed to film even 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers without a complete nervous collapse – it is incredibly exhausting to play the role, even as badly as I did. Maybe I was doing it wrong, but you are shattered to a degree it is hard to explain after a couple of hours, in a way almost nothing else has ever tired me out. If you don’t believe me, spend the next two hours at home or work trying to be Basil Fawlty, and see what happens…

My Cecil Flimsey outfit!

When I got back Lloyd had being playing Ziggurats and Zeppelins, and I hung around a few minutes before vanishing off to get some much needed rest, and work out how to quickly build a Klingon costume with almost no resources. A trip to ASDA with the lovely Hanbury and Rei in Hugh’s car, and I was all set…

Last Night On The Titanic

The problem with freeforms is that I can not really reveal too much of the plot, lest I spoil the game when run again. Last Night on the Titanic was not what I expected, but an interesting experimental game.  I’m not sure I can say anything more, because surprise is a key feature of it.  Suffice to say the top floor crowd seemed to have a great time, though it was not what we thought we were signing up for, and Alex made me howl with suppressed laughter as my son who received some truly awful parental advice from me. Jeff Richard was particularly entertaining, and the captain was awesome, though I did not catch his real name. The pointy eared lass drove me to distraction (in a nice way), and we had immense silly fun running around the bridge. Then things got very weird…

A very ambitious game, it maybe needed another couple of GM’s, and an even bigger playing space (though the garden seemed to be working well and I’m not sure why it was abandoned at some point, unless because it was waterlogged and turning in ot a quagmire — quite appropriate for the Titanic though?), as the play areas became very crowded at times, but it was a dramatic and exciting plot.  The raison d’etre behind events was not to my taste  – despite my being familiar with the milieu in question, we were all working within character knowledge, so some signposts as to the nature of the circumstances that led  to the problem would be useful in future games: I’m very familiar with the background mythos, but had no clue till the debrief what was causing it all. As such the use of the background should be more explicit somehow, and I think the wonderfully played The Traveller character caused many of us to think in terms of the setting we were dropped in, rather than the real “cause”. Not that the ultimate cause mattered in anyway – magic or a vortex or something would have sufficed as an explanation, as all that was outside the players capacity to interact with or learn about.

We had however three clear goals/issues to deal with as a group, though perhaps some of the referee team were slightly under briefed, as one should have been resolved when Jeff blew the thingummy, but the threat just seemed to move further away. I guess he could have kept blowing it!   In a sense it was a puzzle game, but the number of players led to some interesting interaction, but also obscured the ultimate goals, so a sense of frustration reigned at times in some areas. A fun game that had the capacity to be wonderful, but needs a little work, I enjoyed it and the upstairs crew made it hilarious at times, as did Graham’s wonderful Steward. Sorry about my dodgy costuming! This one deserves to be polished and run again. Well done to Chris Killey for a great night,a nd I’m sorry he had to deal with some players who criticised aspects during the game. I’d always leave it a week or at least sleep on it before criticising the effort a referee makes, as I know how much work goes in to writing a game all too well

It was not my best costume, but not bad for an hour when exhausted!

Talking Games!

During the day I briefly caught Jeff who showed me some new Gloranthan art for upcoming moon design books, and some maps and finally I looked briefly at the proofs of the Guide to Glorantha. I say briefly because he was off for lunch, and I’m too polite to take advantage and insist on spending a moment longer in Continuum Central than needed, as I had only popped in to help carry a suitcase and pick up Wyrm’s Footnotes 15, published a mere 30 years after the last issue in 1982. :D I would have spent more time there but I have a conscience, which prevented me talking to any of the VIP Guests much, though I did bore Robin Laws briefly about parapsychology at the end of Sunday while my friends wanted us to go and I was so asleep I could hardly stand up, and was amazed he still remembered me after all the years since we last met.  Anyway I’ll be reviewing Wyrm’s Footnotes 15 later, so I’ll move on.

Saturday night was great fun, with Colin playing guitar, Tressey talking religion to Hugh, and Mark and Lloyd getting in to some long discussion of Ars Magica. I was mildly astounded to find mark had bought my books, till I remembered I was at an rpg convention so this was not entirely unlikely :)  I crashed out about 4am, only to get up at 8am as we had to be out of our room by 9.30am as we were returning home Sunday night.  After the day of gaming I had, I needed a lot more sleep, but a good breakfast and great chat with Steve and Paula D and Phil Masters helped wake me up a bit! I encountered Pete Nash with a wooden sword who really knows his medieval combat from re-enactment discussing the RQ6 combat system, and ended up being fascinated and watching the workshop when I needed sleep, and while I missed the Gloranthan Q & A – one of the things I went to the convention for – the freeform I played instead was really amazing…`

Night Train

Night Train is a minor masterpiece, a lovely game. At first I thought I might die of heat with us all crowded in the small space representing the train, but time flew by and it was amazing fun. I was able to use some real world knowledge to good effect in character interactions, because my character would know it, and it was a delight. The underlying causes are obscure till half way through the game, but that is partly the point, and the second half got even better, as we realised what we were up against. Beautiful costuming, and Michael magnificent as the soldier, and whoever played the J.P, the prim lady in the hat, the Security Officer, the Geek and Candace equally excellent, in fact I would talk about so many players and characters but I am bad with names when people are in costume (I have poor facial recognition and identify people by clothing and gestures, and get hopelessly muddled by who is who in a freeform, as I just recall people by characters even if I know them well!) and like Last Night this game relies on surprise. Still if there is another run, and i am sure there will be many more, do sign up for this one, it is a real gem and a Peaky classic which Charlie and the others are still polishing but which already shines brightly. If you are interested in Freeform games btw there is a wonderful mailing list you can join.

Sunday Afternoon

By Sunday afternoon I was close to collapse. As I had never met the Art of War chaps before (and still have not met Mark, we never bumped in to each other) and they had too many volunteers to GM in the end I stood down so they would be able to run the game as a cohesive group. From what I have seen the game looked wonderful, some of the costumes were breathtaking.  Instead I talked to biz and many other folks, and then Charlie and Alan Paul who ran the excellent boardgames library persuade me to play Last Testament,  a great game, though by the last turn I could barely keep my eyes open I was so tired. The heat was not helping, and my feet stank despite changing my socks three times during the day: not having the room available now really seemed a mistake, and maybe I should have booked Sunday night. F. had drunk the bar dry of tequila by this time, and I met up with Hugh, who had being playing a Pendragon battle game based on Badon, and had a lot of fun by the sound of things. He also came third in the OGRE tournament, and to my amazement even Lloyd tried it and enjoyed it – Lloyd does not do boardgames, and especially wargames! Mind you we all tried things we would not normally try I guess? It was Mikko’s birthday, a lovely bloke, so we stopped to sign his card, make out farewells, and left about 8pm with gaming still in full swing, though many other people left about the same time as us I believe, having to get back for work on Monday.

Final Thoughts

So really it just remains to thank Darran and Russell Sims, Colin Driver, Chris Jones and everyone else who put on such a fantastic event. I’m running my own much smaller con next month, Grand Tribunal, an Ars Magica based con with freeforms and much rpg fun, and hope to see a few familiar faces, but it will never be on anything like the scale of professionalism of Continuum 2012. :)  I had a fantastic weekend, and can’t wait till 2014, though I guess I will have to for Continuum 2014!

Do join us in Cheltenham next month!

Playtest Review: HeroQuest 2 RPG.

Posted in Games, Reviews and Past Events by Chris Jensen Romer on April 14, 2012

I’ll be back to my usual stuff soon, but I have been meaning to post this for a while. It is actually written for a RPG review site, but for the moment, here is my review of the HeroQuest2 roleplaying game mentioned in my previous post.

OK, it’s been a very long time coming, but I wanted to write a full playtest review of Heroquest 2, or as I refer to it from here in HQ2. I have played on and off with the system now for well over a year, I finally feel that I can offer a balanced opinion on its strengths and weaknesses.

About the Reviewer

It’s probably helpful to know a little about my background, to let you see my prejudices. I first came to Runequest and Glorantha in the late 1970’s or early 80’s, and have always been a huge fan of the Basic Roleplaying System, but was from the start bewildered by the incredible depth of the Glorantha world setting. Having some serious Glorantha geeks around me always left me a little put off — simply because I did not know the difference between Yellow, Brown and Green Aldryami for example, and would have (until quite recently) struggled to locate Fronela or the city of Nochet on a map. The amazing strength of Glorantha as a world setting is this depth, and the incredibly esoteric discussions of deep background on the Glorantha email lists – but it is also a major problem to someone like me who likes to know a setting, and explore it, but who as a GM always felt put off by my lack of knowledge. Then, many of the publications that set Gloranthan canon were out of print,or hard to obtain. Finally Runequest in all its versions has a ponderously slow (to my mind) combat system, and so I was never a Glorantha/RQ fan boy.

Then I discovered Heroquest. The received wisdom in my district among gamers was that Hero Wars, its predecessor, was a buggy, difficult and awkward system, with many failings.

I have never actually played it, but I am a huge fan of the trade paperback books that were produced for that edition — but on reading the Hero Wars rules, a new game system set in Glorantha, my brain shut down. (I did exactly the same when first exposed to Ars Magica mind you, and did not come back to it for a decade. I eventually got it, and now am an established author for the 5th edition Ars Magica line with many credits, and a HUGE fan. Never let a negative first impression put you off!) Anyway I really did not get Hero Wars, so when Heroquest first edition was released it took me a very long time to pick it up, but when I did I was blown away, in a good sense. You can read my review here.

I actually eventually discovered in play many problems with the system, or what I perceived as problems. For that reason I have left posting this full playtest review a long time — because I wanted to see if extensive exposure to the HQ2 system would prove similarly disappointing. As I only review games I really enjoy, you can probably guess it did not, but there is a years worth of gaming experience and three short campaigns reflected in this review. I’m still learning though, and ask questions on simple things on the HQ2 yahoogroup quite often, so I’m no expert.

My rpg theory background would place me fully in the Simulationist camp, with a bit of narrativism and gamism chucked in for those who care about such things. I have experimented with many indie rpgs, and enjoyed them, but ultimately am at heart an old style grognard. I have played the game with 12 people, and would say that 10 of them fit that description, one had not gamed before and one is unashamedly narrativist. All enjoyed the experience, and one wrote the following for me as a comment when I told him I was writing a review (I cited it in my previous review if it seems familiar) —

“Love the system. Really flexible on character generation and storytelling. Gave me the ability to try something really challenging and leftfield which was certainly immersive, escapist, liberating and highly enjoyable. I’ll stop now before this ends up is “Pseud’s Corner” in Private Eye.”

Enough about me – I just hope this allows you to make a more considered judgment of my review…

What kind of games can you run with it?

Pretty much any you can imagine, in ANY setting. This is the second edition of Heroquest, which in turn was based on an earlier game Hero Wars.Both those games were set specifically in one fantasy setting – Greg Stafford’s evocative world, Glorantha. This new edition of the rules does contain a small section on playing Heroquest 2.0 in Glorantha, which covers basics of magic etc, but these rules are truly multi-genre – and without much real immediate obvious need for setting packs. You can run any story you can imagine with them – because they abstract the technology and vehicles etc in terms of their role in your story, NOT a simulationist attempt to define how they would work in reality. If you want starship construction rules, stats for a hundred different guns, and a detailed approach to armour and movement and maneuver rules, this is NOT the game for you. Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying might be a better bet, or GURPS? Heroquest 1.0 might also work better for you.

However, my gaming style is simulationist, and I actually have run HQ2 in a very simulationist manner: the crunch is not as important, but I can still narrate in a way that reflects a simulation of a physical universe. I have run a heist based game, which I intended to be cinematic, but actually was by the end of it more like a modern gangster movie, gritty and realistic. It worked just fine: one thing I have learned from playing is that the GM decides if any game is say Space Opera like Star Wars, or hard SF like Asimov’s novels – simulation is a function of narration and what tests you call for, not necessarily down to rules system or what game developers often term “crunch”

Heroquest 2.0 is unashamedly a game about stories and characters, where the genre defines the way the game runs — and the styles that can be supported range from satire to cinematic to gritty realism or even tragic operetta. The GM and the players set the tone, as is the case in any rpg, which whatever the authors intentions can be played from Beer n Pretzels style through to skirmish wargame style. I have played Ars Magica games that run the full spectrum, and I have run Heroquest games that range from my heist-movie series gritty realism through to the more cinematic Bonnie and Clyde game and the deeply immersive Colymar campaign set in Glorantha.

Moon Designs website

As you may have gathered, not having to play HQ2 in Glorantha was a big bonus to me, though all that changed when Moon Designs “reset the canon” and made Glorantha way more accessible with Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes and The Sartar Companion. My reviews of those will follow, but I am finally an unashamed Gloranthan fan-boy owing to the accessibility and beauty of those books.

Character Generation

Let me give an example from my heist movie game “Gone on the Fourth of July”. There are three methods given in the rules – a list method, where you choose ten abilities (and possibly a couple of Keywords, described below), a narrative method where you write 100 words about your character and then derive abilities from that, and a “fill it in as you go method”. Keywords start at 17, other abilities at 13, and then you divide 20 points among them, with no more than 10 points going on any one ability.

We used the 100 word method. As one player turned up late I was tempted to use method 3 for him, and I asked another if he would like to try the List method as he usually finds that easier, but in the end all the players elected to use the 100 word method 1. Given the game’s cinematic roots I said clichéd stereotypes were just fine for the heist characters, if they wanted to play them. We put on the tracks Self Preservation Society, I Fought the Law (Clash version) and Scooby Snacks and we were off…

Lloyd played Jake Malone. His hundred words read

“Jake Malone has been involved with crime since he was a teenager. Stealing cars and armed robbery is his game. He stole his first car at 14 but has gone on to become an excellent wheelman. He lives a playboy lifestyle, fast cars and charming even faster women. He enjoys all the benefits of a criminal lifestyle. Jake is a cockney wide-boy through and through, growing up on the mean streets of the East End, ducking and diving with the best of them. Jake hates the pigs and any form of authority. He would rather die than go to jail. “

I decided to help him interpret these in to a character sheet, and we came up with a decent fun character. His keyword was Wheelman, which we decided we would assign 5 sub-skills, and the italicized bits were his two flaws. Here is Lloyd’s character as it was after the first session, with a few hero points expended on increasing abilities…

Jake Malone

Wheelman 3W(Keyword)
East End Criminal Contacts 13
Acquire Hot Goods 13
Playboy Lifestyle 13
Gone in 60 Seconds 18
‘andle A Shooter 13
Owns Hottest Sh*t on the Road 13
Charm the Knickers Off A Nun 18
Contacts: Sound of Bow Bells 13
Streetwise 13
A Little Bit Woo, A Little Bit Wah 13
The Knowledge 13
Gift of the Gab 13
Sharp Dressed Man 13

They’ll Never Take Me Alive 3W
Rebel Without a Cause 18

The W symbol by the Keyword and the Flaw should be a mastery rune, and adds 20 to the ability. So Jake really has the ability Wheelman 23, in normal terms, but a mastery level has a specific game role, explained under contests below. Note the abilities, all invented by the player, are written in (bad) cockney argot, to reflect the mood of the game. We all understood whgat was intended by them, but having something ambiguous like Erenessa’s (below) Copper Bar of Truth is just fine: it was defined what it did when she first used it in a story.

Now an odd bit about this character. Firstly, it has a lot more than ten abilities. That is because of the way we derived the abilities from the 100 words, and because Lloyd the player decided to spend Hero Points, the experience points of the system, to buy a couple more in keeping with his character after the first session. Secondly, the ability Wheelman (basically “getaway driver”) is a Keyword. In HQ1 Keywords came with a list of breakout abilities, something like —

Drive like a Bat out of Hell (break out ability)
Plan the Perfect Score (break out ability)
Getaway Driver (break out ability)
Two Wheels Through Alley (break out ability)
Chop Shop & Respray (break out ability)

All of which could run off the Keyword, but which could be improved individually too. That is still true in HQ2, but there is no defined list of break out abilities for any Keyword. I was surprised, but this worked really well in play, and it is entirely possible, and normal, to create a character with such breakout abilities. Here is one from my run of the Colymar campaign, to show what a Gloranthan character looks like in HQ2 terms, after 7 sessions…

Erenessa, Initiate of Issaries (Communication)


Earth Rune 17
Truth Rune 17
Communication Rune 1W
Issaries Trader +1
Darktoungue +1
Member of Orlmarthing Clan 20
*Herd Carnivorous Plants (clan secret: spell) +1
Lawgiver (Occupation) 1W
*Convincing +1
*Legal Precedents +1
*History of Sartar+1
*Matchmaker +1


Hit it with my Bludgeon 1W
Hear Gossip and Remember It 18
Swoon Dramatically in to Handsome Fellows Arms (talent) 16
Know the Cowardly Ways of Ducks 13
Impressive Silver Arm Ring 13
Geography of Sartar 13
Betrothed to Ingar of the Hiording 15
Trusted by Termertain 14
The Copper Bar of Truth (magic item) 13
Haggling spell 13
Troll friend 15
Evaluate Lead Goods 13

Matrimonial ambitions 13
Can not tell a lie 1W

Note the abilities marked *, which are all breakouts chosen by her player based on the Lawgiver Keyword. When it is raised, which costs twice as many points as to raise any other ability, they are all raised — but they can also be raised individually. For a full description of how all this works in Glorantha, see my review of Sartar Kingdom of Heroes.

Character generation is a lot of fun, and i have seen some wonderful characters created. I cite these two simply because I happened to have them to hand! The ability to create any ability, be it an item, magical power, skill in normal rpg terms, relationship or personality trait and handle them all with the same system (and augment each other with them) is really fun and rewards player creativity.


One of the oddest things to an old gamer like me about HQ2 and its predecessors has always been that the GM rolls a resistance to every single ability check. This really jars at first, and when I first ran it (well the first two campaigns I ran) I did what I normally do, and just told the players what dice to roll, and what the results were, and they were curious about why I was rolling each time as well. I thought understanding the mechanics was not important – though I always explained when a Hero point could be spent to their benefit. It worked OK, but felt odd.

Now actually in my third game we started like that, but soon the players wanted to know what a Mastery level meant, and what my die rolls were for. I explained the whole mechanics properly, taking time to show them, as I roll the dice openly they started to get involved in understanding the mechanics that led to their marginal victory or whatever. And you know what? They loved it!

I had avoided explaining the system because I like players to concentrate on the story, but understanding the rules was enabling, letting them feel they were in a game not just a narrative made up by me as I went along. HQ2 seems rules light when you first read it, but like many good games the rules have a lot of hidden complexity, and I now appreciate the players want to understand them. It’s really easy to teach HQ2, and for a couple of sessions you might not even need to, but for people who have played a lot of systems understanding the “crunch” adds to their enjoyment.

For those interested in the mechanics: the game uses a D20, and you try to roll low, with 1 a critical, 20 a fumble. You try to roll under the relevant ability, which is modified by lingering bonuses and penalties (see below) and augments, where you roll a second skill that may be relevant to try and get a bonus.

Let’s give an example… Jake (played by Lloyd) above has been rumbled as he tries to listen in to a rival gang’s discussion in a dodgy boozer. As a couple of thugs run after him, he leaves and jumps in his car, taking off at breakneck speed through the street of London. The thugs follow on motorbikes.

Firstly we have to decide what is at stake in the contest. The Thugs want to catch him and ‘ave a word, and eventually he is going to get stuck in traffic. Jake is trying to get away. This is easy: the contest has two opposed outcomes – either the thugs catch him or they don’t. I decide the difficulty will be standard, which for this session is 15, so the thugs have an ability of 15. I will treat both as a pair for this simple contest. Now we need to establish the number Lloyd is rolling against to see if Jake escapes – he has 3W, so 23, but he wants to augment this with his “Owns Hottest Sh*t on the Road 13″ ability. So first we roll a quick contest, against a base resistance for an augment this session of 14. I roll 14, a success, as narrator. Lloyd rolls 19, a failure — having a fast car won’t help this time, as he gets no benefit from the augment. I describe how heavy traffic means he just can’t use that speed. We now roll to see if he can outrun the bikers – they have an ability of 15, he 3W.

Now the weird bit. Ignore the mastery for now – the W. Lloyd needs to roll under 3, I need to roll under 17. I roll a 12, a success; Lloyd rolls an 8, a fail. Now the Mastery cuts in – Lloyds result is bumped from a Fail to a Success, and so both parties succeed. Lloyd rolled lower, and so he gets a marginal victory — in this case he gets away, but the pursuers got a good look at him and his car. I would let Lloyd narrate what a marginal victory means. My explanation is not very clear, but soon you don’t need to refer to the tables in the book and it all becomes very easy to use.

In this instance,Jake also might get a Lingering Bonus of +3 to an ability in a similar situation, which lasts till he fails using that ability. I think I’d give him +3 to outrun bikes, or drive in traffic, either of which would run off his Wheelman keyword. These are not abilities — just bonuses that are temporary, and reflect his success in this kind of thing. Wounds are similar, but penalties to the ability that is wounded. If Jake gets slashed across the face in a scrap, his “Charm the Knickers Off A Nun 18″ might take a lingering penalty till he can get stitched up, made up or perhaps have plastic surgery. If his car gets smashed up, his “Owns Hottest Sh*t on the Road 13″ suffers a penalty — in a complete defeat it might “die” as his car is a write off, and we just scrub it off his character sheet.

Now imagine we were going to run this as an extended contest, the most important part of the session. How it works is a succession of simple contests, but each one gives points to the side that wins – a marginal victory 1, a minor victory 2, a major victory 3 and a complete success (fumble versus critical ) 5. First to 5 wins; there are rules for assistance from other player characters, each round needs a new exciting augment; his ability The Knowledge refers to the test London cab drivers have to take to show they know their way round the city, so that would be entirely appropriate for instance, or in desperation he could wave his gun at the bikers, using “handle a shooter” to try and intimidate them.

There are rules for Extended Group Contests, and loads of great advice on running contests in the book. I hope my attempt at explanation has not put anyone off!

There is one other aspect of the system that needs a little attention though. Like most games, if a skill is not directly applicable, or is a “stretch” as the rules term it, then you can attempt it at a penalty. Jake has “East End Criminal Contacts 13″, but he needs to make contact with a gang member who is part of a mob South of the River Thames. He asks if he knows anyone down there — I decide this is a minor stretch, and maybe give him a -3 penalty. If however he wants to know a West End white collar criminal with a knowledge of bank fraud, well that is a real stretch – he will have a penalty of -6. If he wants to know a crook from Cardiff, I might just rule the ability is useless — it’s too far from his home turf. However, imagine a situation where Jake is trying to acquire some stolen jewellery to give to his annoyed girlfriend. This can clearly run off his “Acquire Hot Goods 13″ ability, and he can augment with several other abilities, not least the criminal contacts one.

However Lynzi, Sam’s character is a professional jewel thief. She has “Fence Stolen Jewels W5″. This ability is much more specific and relevant than Jake’s. Now as it happens Lynzi is out of town, casing the train route they plan to rob — but even though, as another player character has a more appropriate ability, Lloyd has a -6 to Jake’s ability.

This is a really neat metagaming aspect. Firstly, it makes every character have an incentive to have specific, appropriate skills — not just “Sword 18″ but “Swing from Chandelier and Flash My Rapier 18″. One of my issues with Runequest when it first came out, rather a long time ago, was that while cults and previous experience made characters different, they were far less defined than in D&D with its classes: Fighter, Mage, Cleric, Thief, etc. With this system every character has a strong motive to be designed as unique, with its own defined role and not stealing glory from the others. The Humakti is the deadly swordslinger walking down the street to a duel at high noon: the Storm Bull is a frothing berserker, launching himself against the horde of chaos creatures. They have a similar function as combat characters, but their players make sure they are differentiated, and have very different abilities. I really like this feature, and it has worked well in play.

Rising Stakes

If you read the above carefully you will notice that I said the base difficulty was for that session. Yes, every two sessions the base difficulty goes up, and a High difficulty task is always base +6, Very High base +9, Nearly Impossible base +W2. Likewise the base resistance to augments also goes up. Why? Well in my experience after a long HQ1 campaign, characters became VERY powerful. In HQ2 this is downplayed by this mechanic – odd, but works. You improve your character at the end of a session by spending some of the Hero Points the GM awards you to buy new abilities, or improve existing ones. However Hero Points can also be used to boost a contest result. In one of my games the players approached their clan asking for support, but had recently got the clan in to trouble with their tribal king, by an insulting limerick offered as a gift poem. While the clan do not like King Blackmoor, this could have nasty repercussions. Then the players rolled a fumble, I rolled a critical. A complete defeat. Not only were they not going to get any support, they were in real danger of being exiled given what they had done. Luckily Erenessa had a few spare Hero Points, and she spent one to boost her success from Fumble to Fail, and one more to boost it from Fail to Success. It was still a minor defeat, but it prevented the clan taking serious action against them: they all suffered -6 to their relationship with the clan as a minor penalty until the King was appeased, and they received absolutely no help and some new onerous duties. :( Without the expenditure of Hero Points it would have been much worse though.

After this experience the players were careful to keep a few Hero Points back, and not improve their characters every session. By session 7 most of them had a best ability, often a Keyword (more expensive to raise) at around 7W – the base resistance was by now 17 for a normal difficulty task. Erenessa above is unusual because her player spent most of his points boosting results. If you want to be good at something though, spend Hero Points to improve it. There is one rule which prevents characters having loads of low value ignored abilities – whenever you get one to 1W, 5 abilities at least 5 lower are increased by 3 points, in what is called a catch up. Players love this, and it appeals to their gamist tendencies!

So what’s changed from HQ1?

Everything and nothing. If you don’t know Heroquest 1.0, skip this bit! The game is still identifiably Heroquest, and everything I loved about the original is there.

Yet also it’s completely different – a change in approach comparable in the difference between D&D 3rd edition and D&D 4th edition, but in the opposite direction – from bean counting and tactical play, towards narrative storytelling.

Yet there are still a LOT of rules, they are still number heavy, but much simplified over HQ1.0, and augments which were a problem for me in Heroquest 1.0 have been totally reworked, and are now mainly about doing something new and interesting, not “add the +3 for sword skill, the +2 for Humakti, the +1 for hate Lunars, the +3 from my deathly glare and the +2 for my bunions of death, that’s +11 every turn”. One major change is augmenting is now usually with one ability, and you roll for it (or in some campaigns the GM can use the optional static augment – but then it’s now a 5th of your skill.) The need to think up something new to do each time you augment to justify it really makes the game go way faster – before it was often a tedious exercise in scanning character sheets to wring the last possible augment (a bonus to an ability based on another ability) off your character sheet, now it’s a much faster, cleaner system.

Extended contests and the consequences thereof have changed radically. Basically there are two types of Extended Contest — ones that take place during the main part of the story, which are less likely to mangle your character, and the final climax, where death or injury are far more likely. The HQ1 gambling for points bid is gone – replaced with a neat “first to 5 victory points mechanic. I was sceptical about this and planned to use HQ1 until I tried it, but actually collecting bottle tops or coins in an extended contest, and the way assists (where another character intervenes on your behalf) works really well in play. The examples given in the book, especially the long one of an Extended Group Contest are off putting, but actually using the system showed just how well it all worked in practice, and players have to narrate their actions and be creative, replacing the tedious “roll for attack, roll for parry, roll damage, subtract armour etc” of so many games.

In my opinion in an rpg combat you have three choices – let it be a die rolling contest, allow huge numbers of weapon and tactical choices to make for interesting combat, or to do what this game does and make storytelling the combat (and effective tactical choices therein) an essential element, making combat more than just an exercise in die rolling. D&D 4th ed increased participation via one a day, one a combat etc feats – the HQ2 rules have a similar effect in game play, with players trying t inventively find ways to augment, but now having to come up with something fresh every round, and often defaulting to “I just hit it!” if they are doing well. The requirement to come up with a fresh and exciting augment each round is just too much effort for a player who wants to win and get on with the next story: probably a sign I should not have used an extended contest.

On Extended Contests — almost everything in my sessions has been handled by simple contests, with one or in a few cases two extended contests per session when they really matter. They certainly have not all been combats — many have been debates, seductions, climbing a cliff, or even in one occasion making a new batch of extra-potent moonshine.

So long as it is critical to the narrative, interesting, and complex enough that you want to dwell on that bit of a story, you use an extended contest — if it is really really simple, you use a simple contest. When Frodo trekked across the marshes for days, in one of my least favourite sequences of Lord of the Rings, that would be a simple contest (if any). Trying to eject from an out of control jet fighter – that’s probably an extended contest, even though it lasts less than a second of actual time.

If you wanted you could of course still use Heroquest 1.0’s mechanic easily enough. There is loads of good advice on running contests, examples throughout, and modifiers now give a +3, +6, or +9. There are no fiddly +1 or -2 type modifiers, every modifier if worth putting in is boldly drawn. And the old weapons and armour pluses are gone too – characters are assumed to just have them as part of their abilities, and creating your own abilities is as before a big part of the game, but in non-Gloranthan settings even bigger than before. There are rules for creating communities, including for designing clan history style background questionnaires to let players have input through their choices in to designing the communities past ( like the one in Barbarian Adventures )- but now you can create your own for any setting. The community chapter also includes resource management rules, with variable scales, and where player character actions are important over and above random rolls.

The Pass/Fail Cycle

Every so often I read an idea that makes me rethink the way I think about roleplaying games. This was one of those occasions. In most rpg’s the characters face certain resistances, defined by the setting. Dragons are terrible, mighty foes, Klingon ships are dangerous adversaries, goblins are spiteful but puny, the Nazi’s vicious but dumb, the system you are trying to hack homicidally loaded with dangerous software to prevent an easy success. These numbers are dictated by the rules, the referees world vision, or even how experienced the characters are – “don’t go in to the third level of the dungeon unless you are third level!” None of this applies here.

Here, the difficulty of an encounter varies by its place in the story, and how well the characters are doing. If they are constantly failing, the challenges get easier and easier till they succeed. If they keep succeeding, they builder up in difficulty throughout the session, and either way always culminate in a dangerous a nail-biting climax!

That’s right, the difficulty of the challenges vary with how the characters are doing. A typical story will include both many successes and a few failures, which the characters will have to find ways round. When I first read this I was truly appalled – it seemed like the referee was just making the game up as they went along, and there was no way to be clever and “win” through good tactics – all story, but less game.

And then I saw – the Narrator (referee) can retrospectively create challenges based upon the next difficulty level, and is encouraged to change the difficulties to maintain genre and game world conventions – it does not matter how many times the characters failed climbing up the Lonely Mountain, if they poke Smaug on the nose with a stick they are in BIG trouble, and probably toast. Yet the Pass/Fail cycle really does seem to offer an exciting way to pace your narratives – letting the players succeed in defeating a minor obstacle before encountering Smaug may restore fun when the whole story seems to be falling apart through little more than bad dice rolls.

And if you hate it, well you can run Heroquest the “standard” rpg way, assigning all difficulties long in advance.

Now my playtest experience: I was really enthused an excited by this, and I printed off a Pass/Fail cycle sheet, and for my first two games I used it constantly, setting difficulties slavishly to it. And to be honest, it probably detracted from my game. Heresy! Robin Laws the author who I much admire has explored the role of the Pass/Fail cycle in his book Hamlet’s Hit Points — perhaps it’s my M.A. in Cultural Studies, but I really did not get enthused by it. If you love that book you will adore this aspect of HQ2 – but I finally for my third game did what Robin always intended, and set resistances as my storytelling instinct suggests, rather than worrying about the Pass/Fail cycle. I use it now as it was intended -as a guide – but most of the time i just set the difficulty of any given challenge based on my simulationist instinct, and you know what — my HQ2 games are much better for it.

It’s a shame that this element that excited me so much was not all I hoped for – but as I say, I’m a simulationist at heart. My players always get in to interesting trouble, of their own making, and I am happy to use static resistances. In the Colymar Campaign in Sartar Kingdom of Heroes many challenges have set resistances,and you can modify them of course as your story requires, and I find that liberating. It’s what GM’s have done for years. A run of good or bad luck is not dictated by arbitrary changes in difficulty anyway — I rolled 5 criticals against my players in my last session, and let the dice stand, so the story was pretty dramatic, but of the resistance was 6 or 19 the result would have been the same anyway.

So is the Pass/Fail cycle a good idea? Yes; just follow the advice in the book, and don’t follow it slavishly. I like to write down a few skills and numbers for some npc’s — and my sense of story dictates the pacing, contests, and difficulty levels more than following the cycle now.

In Conclusion

If you have read my earlier reviews you will know I loved Heroquest 1, and really enjoyed it, and was wildly excited by HQ2 when it first came out. My players however are always more alert to problems than me, and the multiple augment thing did become an issue, as did high power levels over a year or so of weekly play. Both these faults are addressed in HQ2, and while I worried about the loss of Keywords with specific listed abilities, my players took to it. I did not really get the Rune magic system till I bought Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes – for HQ in Glorantha see my rave review of that. The book has faults, and there are aspects of the rules that I still struggle with — I find gun battles are at times a bit hard to describe, but I used a lot of simple contests for most, and it worked fine. So long as you get the way contest work, and carefully read the advice, it’s a brilliant system. and while my players and I came to not dwell much on the Pass/Fail cycle, other groups will adore it. I was not keen on Hamlet’s Hit Points — if you liked that book, this is the system for you. The main rule book has loads of examples, but nothing in the way of scenarios, and having played The Colymar Campaign from Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes a while that was amazingly handy in showing how to run the game, so that was a missed opportunity. (There are scenarios on the web, and any old HQ1 scenario, or indeed almost any rpg scenario at all, would be easily converted I think. However while i could run Traveller or Ars Magica scenarios with HQ2, I probably would not want to, as I could run them with those systems they were written for…)

This is a superb rpg, and I am still excited by it, love it, and really enjoy talking about it, as you can probably tell. It joins Ars Magica and Call of Cthulhu as one of the very very best rpgs I have ever run, and I have run a lot of rpgs over 30+ years. It is bit of a struggle to master, but once you finally get it, it is a beautiful game. Highly recommended.

Heroquest 2 is available from the Moon Design website here.

The Plot, the Story and the Players – some thoughts on running rpgs

Posted in Games, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life by Chris Jensen Romer on December 13, 2011

I write about many different subjects on this my personal blog, but it is possible that some readers are not aware that one of my great passions is roleplaying games. Not the kinky “you be a naughty nun and I’ll be a Cabinet Minister” kind of thing; I mean the kind of games which are about exploring a story, solving puzzles, and developing a narrative between the players and the referee. The classic game of this type, the grandaddy of them all if D&D, that is Dungeons and Dragons. I have not played D&D for many years, but at least most people recognize the name of that game, and know the kind of thing I mean. There are nowadays a lot of CRPG’s, Computer rpgs, and some are very enjoyable — I am playing Skyrim at the moment – but my main love has always been the tabletop variety, played with pencil, paper, funny shaped dice and most of all, played with friends. :)

Now if you are not interested in such things, skip this post — it will be very dull indeed! If you are, I’m going to talk about hints for running games, for Gamemasters. (I prefer GM to the D&D term ‘Dungeonmaster’ — telling my friends I am off to be a dungeon-master before vanishing in to my basement for hours with middle aged men gives rather the wrong impression I find! )

Tonight I have been playing a game set in the English Civil War, with some “clockworkpunk” and real alchemy.  The characters are Robert Gently-Benevolent (owner of a chain manufactory); Lord Hugo, a villain straight out of a bodice -ripper, spy and seducer (played of course by Luke);  Sir Thomas Lavington, an alchemist, and last but not least Henry, a manufacturer of clockwork devices.  The game is Clockwork and Chivalry, and we are on the last chapter or two of the adventure The Alchemist’s Wife. They have trekked across England from Oxford to Cambridge, bodies strewn in their path by their nemesis. Now because this is a published adventure and some people reading the blog may one one day wish to play it (and you should, it’s great fun!)

We have been playing this game weekly for a couple of months now, and the characters have grown as the tale is told. Unfortunately the players are rather clever, and worked out the identity of their nemesis, the murderer if you like, in the very first session. That surprised me, but armed with those suspicions they were able to confirm it pretty much in their mind very quickly, and even work out the motive, about half way through. I won’t explain here so as not to give away the plot, but the story became not so much a whodunnit with a quest for a missing woman also motivating them, but a pursuit of the chief villain across England.

Now the problem. In the story as written the character’s can’t get horses, and are unable to catch up with the Nemesis till the last chapter. In our game they actually had a chance to capture a mechanical device, damaged, but by some with Henry’s skill’s salvageable. Henry had wanted Henry Ireton (Parliamentarian leader and general) as a contact, and armed with letters from him and the Royalist Sir Reginald Perkinson once he had fixed the thing it made sense he could keep it at least as far as the New Model Army HQ in Cambridge. I could have had it mysteriously breakdown, be seized by roundhead patrols, become mired in the mud – but what the hell – I thought it was entertaining that he had captured it!

So I let them keep it, and inevitably they came up with a clever way to use it to catch up with the Nemesis. He managed to escape, and they tracked him dowmn, and captured him, two whole chapters early. Now is this not a bad thing?

Years ago I would have probably thought yes. I have bought a scenario book, and I would have probably intended to use as much of it as possible. Nowadays – nah, they were having fun. The plot is basically a road trip, and they already have clues which will lead them to the final chapter and the twist — having two climaxes to the story not one works just fine for me. When the players are clever, and come up with a way to outsmart the carefully plotted scenario — I just let them. There is nothing more annoying than having to come up with reasons to stop the players short circuiting the whole plot, and thwarting their every move.  I t would be like running  a session without protective fathers and innocent young maidens for Hugo to seduce, or without any opportunity for David who knows about such things to tell us about domestic life and architecture or alchemy or history of the period.  Actually Clockworkers and Alchemists do NOT shine in this game – I think it would work just as well without either, and so letting Kevin’s character grab the “ironhorse” and eventually use it to outrun the Nemesius, was the right thing to do dramatically.

The scenario is basically a “road trip” across England, and players can feel “railroaded”, denied opportunity to go their own way and having to stay on predefined tracks  in such scenarios. I don’t think any of the things that have happened outside of the guidelines of the scenario actually break the plot as regards the next supplement Thou Shalt Not Suffer, and I want the game to not just give the illusion of Free Will to the players, I want to be prepared to allow them to be clever and solve the problem however they want. What if they had made straight for Cambridge, via a different route, and sort a political solution to they problem they were faced with at the start of the game?

I’d have let them. If your players trust you to let them significantly shape how the game develops, and believe rightly they have significant influence over the plot, then sometimes you need to throw away the scenario entirely, and think on your feet, but most of the time they accept that the plot lies that way, and when the old man offers them three silver pieces to go in to the gloomy dungeon at midnight to recover the Runespoon of the Volemage or whatever, they play along.  If they think however you are forcing them to follow your tightly scripted plot, and resisting all their efforts to be clever, then they will grow tired of your game, and resist by every means they can, even opening a shoe shop and giving up the adventuring life.

Hey just a few thoughts, Any alternative opinions?

cj x



Report from the Grand Tribunal of Stonehenge: Ars Magica UK convention 2010

Posted in Games, Reviews and Past Events by Chris Jensen Romer on August 25, 2010

OK, it’s all over. I am just working out how many hours went in to organising  it all: at least 70, as the Cheltenham con is not part of a larger event, so I end up doing pretty much everything. Still it was worth it just to meet some lovely folks, and spend a weekend dedicated to one of my favourite roleplaying games.

For anyone reading this who does not really know me well, Ars Magica is a roleplaying game set in 13th century Europe, as it was believed to be. Dragons live in the mountains, wizards study in lonely towers, and faeries haunt the forests. It’s not a computer game — it is a game played like Dungeons & Dragons by people with pencils, paper and funny shaped dice.  This was the fourth annual Ars Magica convention here in the UK; I ran the first two, Neil and Sheila ran last years in Cambridge and will host the event in 2011, and there have been three now in the US as well, held the same weekend. This was the largest so far: a total of 37 people being at at least some of the event, though not all were gamers, a few were guests or friends dropping in to say hi!

Woodcut of the freeform players by Pitt Murmann

Woodcut of the freeform players by Pitt Murmann

The venue is great, and usually very busy with community events and classes, so we were lucky to get it for a whole day and Sunday morning.

We opened on Friday with a very cheap meal at the Happy Garden restaurant, a local Chinese. It was great to gather 24 people together and just chat, and enjoy relaxing. For the Norwegian contingent  it was probably a much needed rest. Of course the day started much earlier for me and Becky, dashing around meeting delegates, and doing all kinds of preparation work — but that’s what happens when you host!

After the meal we made our way to The Cotswolds Pub where David Sivier gave an excellent paper on Fairy Beliefs in the 13th century & beyond. I learned quite a bit – I was not aware that changelings did not appear till the 16th century – up till then the fairies just left a wooden image in the place of kidnapped folks. The bit about the bloke who interrupted the fairy attempt to steal his wife and kept the captured wooden simulacra they had planned to leave as a useful bit of furniture made me laugh! I noted a number of similarities in the narratives with my recent work on poltergeists, and others had many questions for David who came all the way from Bristol to give the talk. Thanks Dave, and a belated happy birthday mate! (Same day as mine, the 23rd August). I was too tired to say much,a nd fighting sleep – because I was exhausted, but I hope Dave posts it somewhere on the web!

After that people just chatted or played card or board games – it was one o clock before people departed for their digs, even Lisa (who does not game) staying till the end, and I got home to find a problem with both my keyboard and printer, so much later before I finally managed to grab some much needed sleep. The gas was off: we have had a few leaks in the street recently – and it was morning before I could grab a quick wash and run down to open up the venue, Gas Green community centre. It’s a great venue, with two generous sized halls, a few rooms upstairs and a kitchen area, and served our needs well.

The guests were rather late this year, despite good weather; we were due to begin games at ten, but it took till eleven fr most people to gather, so we proceeded straight to the freeform, Puck’s Dell. I had worked rather frantically to complete this in time, and while it ended up with 23 players rather thn the planned 25, it was I think a success. Well at least most of the feedback I got was very positive. The sight of 20+ people dressed up running around scheming, dealing, plotting and manipulating each other was really entertaining, though as I was the only referee I was rather busy, and utterly exhausted by the end, where many true identities became apparent – think of it as As You Like It meets Ars Magica and you get the atmosphere and a rough sense of what it was about.  It is impossible to single out any one player, but it was amazing how Andrew O. composed an eight line song and melody (with help from Taryn) and got everyone to perform it while also trying to get his non-existent covenfolk (recently changed back from mice) to meet the many demands of magi and companions, and I think Nick Galaxy was absolutely amazing as Lugh the Apprentice!  Lloyd however was disappointed that his character the priest Father Gerard did not get to conduct any marriages, a fact given the plot I find astonishing, but then again he did not get to conduct any funerals – the only “death” was Sir Pharisee, turned in to a collection of sticks and flowers.  Barrie looked awesome as Geron, and Black Tom was also a lot of fun to watch scheming. However really I saw very little of the game; though the fireworks between Kirstie and Andrew Sceats characters at the end was really fun!

Freeform game at Grand Tribunal 2010

Freeform game at Grand Tribunal 2010

For those who don’t know what a freeform is: it’s a bit like a huge murder mystery game, where everyone is given a character sheet with what they know about their characters and then has objectives to meet. It is hard to explain, and for a lot of our players was the first time they had tried it, but they really got in to it,and Daniel Vandenburg and Ivan really worked hard making tabards and stuff, and were excellent fun throughout.

Anyhow, after the freeform I was utterly exhausted, but it was straight in to games. Tom Nowell ran a mystery playtest, the first of three over the weekend, for Atlas Games by special permission of line Editor David Chart, with the players signing Non-Disclosure Agreements.  This was part of a book still “in production” for Ars Magica, so I can’t say anything at all about the session (or the other two) but hopefully the feedback provided will prove useful for the authors.

Meanwhile Becky and  I played Leif Olav Josang’s The Unquiet Grave,  a wonderfully written game for grogs, with elements of low humour and high adventure, set in 13th century York (which happens to be where our Tuesday night saga is also set). Its a great adventure, possibly the best I have played for Ars Magica, highly recommended. Leif should publish it on the Special Ops Atlas Games site or in the Sub Rosa fanzine. Becky had never played Ars Magica before, and had only roleplayed twice, but she enjoyed herself too.

At the same time Nick Galaxy ran the entire Fourth Crusade, including the sieges of Zara and Constantinople, in just four hours.   only caught glimpses of it, but it looked great, and I heard the row between the Doge Dandolo and Boniface and things seemed to pan out as they did historically, except Zara surrendered and was spared sacking. I wish I could have played that as well; but we had to reshuffle time slots, so I missed out. I must ask Nick to let me see the character sheets though, because it looked like an incredible game, and because I am one of the authors of the latest Ars Magica supplement The Sundered Eagle which covers Constantinople and the Tribunal of Thebes, and indeed wrote the “modern” history bit.

The Sundered Eagle

The Sundered Eagle - out soon!

I’m going to have to speed up or this will be immensely long; the evening saw only one game run, as Lloyd wanted more time to prep hs mystery playtest. I think a boardgame was played, but I wandered off to get food, letting Tom Nowell take my place in Andrew Sceats’  The Archmage is Busy; he had just run a session and I felt he ought to be allowed to play because he could not make the Sunday morning.  I think it was run with 3rd edition rules, and apparently it was a fantastic scenario – maybe someone can write a review, without too many spoilers as I hope to play it in the future?

I got to relax a bit in the evening and chat freeforms with Mark Steedman, games with the Mark S and Ars writing with Mark Lawford.  Then it was home fr a much needed shower, and last minute prep for Sunday! The Author’s panel featured Neil, Sheila Mark Lawford and myself, and we read a message from David Chart where many forthcoming releases were discussed or hinted at – but no we can’t tell you, yoiu had to be there! Thanks to Lloyd, Mark S and Andrew O. we managed  link up with Caifornia, and chatted to folks at the Grand Tribiunal US event briefly before we lost connection I think, but that was fun too, and the raffles raised £187 for our three charities, which was amazing. :)

Sunday opened promptly, and all the remaining delegates (bar Sheila who was off to church) were in a game; well Becky watched mine. Two were Mystery Playtests, one run by Kev Sides, one by Lloyd so I can’t say anything about them as they are covered by the NDA. I myself ran Twilight Fades – a very unusual Ars Magica game, in that it was set in Summer 2010 with four bored eleven year olds banned from TV and trying to find something to do in a  rural Suffolk village – but by the end it was classic Ars Magica, kinda, sorta! I really enjoyed running it – excellent performances all round, Barrie James and Barry Cowden were hilarious, Mark Lawford somehow kept them moving and was the sensible one but a pleasure to play with, and Daniel Vandenberg’s Matilda was priceless —  “I want to be a Ballerina!” Well soon she was a ballista – not quite what she had in mind! :)

And then it was one o clock, all too soon, and time for everyone to go home. Not that everyone did – for many it was straight down to Wetherspoons for the Flying Ship Design contest! I had to pop up to meet JK at the Queen’s Hotel, but caught them later, and that evening was treated to a lovely birthday lunch by Leif, Karl and anders before they set off home for Norway in the morning.

Despite being utterly exhausted I enjoyed a wonderful weekend, and will do it all again in 2012! next year Neil and Sheila are hosting again, and I hope to make it, finances permitting.

So how did it go? Really well I think. I was shattered for my birthday on Monday – but we had fun, and what was noticeable this year was how much the emphasis was on grogs and non-magi characters. Puck’s Dell has Grogs, Nobles, Magi, Apprentices, Magical People/Faeries and Covenfolk as the five types of character – I hope all were equally fun to play. Twilight Fades, The Archmage is Busy and The Unquiet Grave all emphasized grogs. It just goes to show what you can do with the Ars Magica setting, even without your magus in the limelight, and how much potential troupe play has.

Apologies to anyone I have not name-checked in this brief run through — it was lovely to meet you all. I have to dash, but see you all again in 2012. Next year Neil and Sheila are hosting again, in Cambridge, as part of the Consternation con.

cj x

Grand Tribunal is held by kind permission of Atlas Games. “Grand Tribunal” and the “Grand Tribunal” logo are trademarks of Trident, Inc. d/b/a Atlas Games, used with permission.

Join DADD! (Dawkinites Against Dungeons and Dragons!)

Posted in Dreadful attempts at humour, Games by Chris Jensen Romer on March 6, 2010

Tired of religious nuts having all the censorious fun! Join my new campaign!

I hereby propose a new organisation, DADD, short for Dawkinites Against Dungeons And Dragons. It has long been troubling my conscience that one of the industries in which I work, role playing games design, encourages theism, supernaturalism and belief in the occult and magical thinking.

In the “roleplaying game” Dungeons & Dragons (originally 1974 by TSR, today published by Wizards of the Coast) players, often young teens at a very vulnerable and impressionable age, take on the role of “wizards” and “clerics” (!!!) who perform magical acts by casting spells (despite the fact that no one has ever claimed Randi’s millions and anyone who has ever read a book knows all parapsychology is bunk and part of an evil conspiracy of Jesuit controlled pseudo-scientists). The book positive encourages “worship” of these deities – many of which are actually based upon REAL deities whose followers have oppressed and persecuted atheists in the past! The infamous Deities & Demigods book contains for example stats for Zeus and Odin, and detailed description of polytheism, pantheism, and other religious practices. Players are expected to “roleplay” dedicated service to and worship of these deities, which in the game is actually OBJECTIVELY TRUE! and rewards the players character with experience points.

This seemingly fantastic and innocuous hobby has repeatedly been used in the past too attract teenagers from their natural interests in sex, drugs and rock n roll to a study of occultism as a way to rot their minds and lead them to magical thinking, and from there it is a short step to reading a well known Evangelical tract and being convinced of ones sinfulness and becoming a Theist! Church groups often encourage these roleplaying games, and there are even a number of explicitly Christian and Christian themed games out there.

Even such seemingly innocent entertainment’s as White Wolf’s Vampire, in which one plays a tragically hip angst ridden teenage vampire who gets “to kill people and take their blood” – all clearly harmless enough – has actually hidden within deep Christian overtones, with concepts of damnation, salvation (here cunningly disguised as Golconda) and objective morality. Even this most, on the surface, acceptable game has a hidden theistic/magical agenda – the Disciplines are clearly supernatural powers, irreconcilable with any logical naturalistic paradigm.

So what can the sensible atheist parent due to protect their child from this hideous threat? Firstly, take your copy of The God Delusion, and read it loudly to build the confidence to confront your child. Secondly, arm yourself with a big stick – teenagers CAN bite when roused. Thirdly, search their bedroom, and take and burn all this supernaturalist mind rotting theistic trojan horse stuff, in a big bonfire. And call all the other freethinking parents, and encourage them to do just the same.

Topics not directly associated with roleplaying games and often associated with roleplayers but possibly worthy of destruction are dice, drugs, drug paraphenalia, occult books, the works of Stephen J Gould, the Journal of European Parapsychology, BDSM gear, girls, hot water bottles, cats and Telly Tubby merchandise. Destroy it all! You may also want to ban your child from internet access to prevent them from going to such well known spawning sites of fundamentalist, Catholic and liberal theology as http://www.rpg.net !

If atheism is to survive, we must protect our children’s minds from this terrible threat! Say no to God and the Supernatural today, and organise a Freethinkers bonfire for your neighbourhood!


This warning was brought to you (mainly as a parody of the Religious Right)
by CJ x

Dunwich, Anno Domini 1988!

Posted in Games by Chris Jensen Romer on February 10, 2010

OK, tonight’s Ars Magica roleplaying game session revolved around the Siege of Dunwich, Suffolk in  1173.  I then remembered all the work I put in to this . I was writing for my Mage the Awakening campaign, and  I wanted a setting outside of my current home county of Gloucestershire, but in the UK. I finally decided I would use a fictional setting. While this can be restrictive to players, I felt that could be overcome by allowing the players to help me create and imagine the setting.

Being very fond of my home county of Suffolk I toyed with the idea of a Suffolk setting. Unfortunately Suffolk has few large towns – really only Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Felixstowe. I had used Bury St Edmunds for my Changeling Chronicle “Three Crowns” and in several Ars Magica sagas, so I wanted something different. Also I lived in Bury St Edmunds in the time the game is set, and I wanted to avoid running a game which used  my friend and old rpg group as NPCs. It was fun in Changeling but I wanted Mage to feel different.

Then I thought of Dunwich. Dunwich is still remembered in the titles of the local diocese, and in the 13th century was a major town, prospering at a time when Ipswich was in recession. The Great Storm of 1287 silted up the harbour, and the town went in to a terminal decline. Then as the years passed, the coastal defences were not maintained, and the town was lost to the sea as the cliffs eroded.

There is practically nothing left of the old town of Dunwich today, just a gravestone from the last Church to vanish. The village of Dunwich still exists a little inland as I recall, and I took the Student Parapsychology Society to the site of Dunwich a few years back, but there is really little to see.

However, as well inspiring the name of Lovecraft’s fictional Dunwich, Massachusetts (which gives the name an eerie and gothic tone immediately) Dunwich has become home to all kinds of legends and stories. While marine archaeologists and historians deny it was ever the great city with fifty churches one reads about in romantic Victorian books, it certainly was a major town, and if it had not been for the gret storm of 1287 would today be a major East Anglian port and cathedral city.

In my World of Darkness, that is exactly what happened. I have set about recreating Dunwich for the game, but Dunwich as it might have been, in 1988! I am not sure what use a fictional history of a lost town is anyone, but if anyone wants to join in by creating more places, personalities, or lift some of it for  a game they are running feel free. The yuppie-era Vampire game exploring Thatcherism from the bloodsuckers perspective  may happen yet – and this might amuse anyone who has ever tried to create a fictional town!

Central Dunwich as-it-never-was; in 1987 or at any other time!

Central Dunwich as-it-never-was; in 1987 or at any other time!

A History of (fictional) Dunwich

In which CJ makes a very peculiar blend of truth and fiction for the setting of his Vampire game – bet you can’t work out which is which!!! Dunwich (pronounced Dun-Itch) is a seaport and seaside resort in the county of Suffolk in England, with a natural harbour formed by the mouths of the River Blyth and the River Dunwich. Dunwich is today one of the largest ports in eastern England, with a population of around 53,000 (1988), though it is less important as an international port than nearby Harwich and Felixstowe. Initially settled by the Romans who built a now lost fort here called Sitomagus here (“the place of the Magi”), Dunwich grew large because its position as a convenient harbour on the North Sea made it attractive to Saxon settlers, who had founded a town here by 600AD. Further down the coast is the site where the Sutton Hoo treasure was found, and the area is rich in finds of Anglo-Saxon artefacts. In the Norman period the town continued to prosper, and an entry exists in the 1086 Domesday Book.

The twelfth century saw the construction of the great walls of Dunwich, some of which still stand to this day, by Hugh de Burgh. Tragically 1191 saw a shameful episode when following a blood libel, (claims they sacrificed Christian boy named Guy whose body was found in a well) there was a massacre of forty citizens, despite the best effort of Bishop Grace to prevent the massacre. This followed similar pogroms against the Jews at Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, and King’s Lynn, Norfolk. Following the revolt of Hugh de Burgh against the King the small motte and bailey castle was slighted, and it was never to be rebuilt, though the impressive earth mound Castle Hill still towers over the estuary and town, surmounted by a small wood and Girsham’s Folly, an eighteenth century mock ruined tower built by a minor member of the Hellfire Club in 1775.

King John granted Dunwich its Charter in 1208, which provided for the Thursday Market, and in the next four centuries it made most of its wealth trading Suffolk woollen cloth with the Continent, while maintaining a strong fishing fleet which rivalled those of Ipswich and Great Yarmouth. Other main exports were grain, and the main imports were fish, furs and timber from Iceland and the Baltic region, cloth from the Netherlands, and wine from France.

During the Middle Ages the cathedral was a popular pilgrimage destination, and attracted a number of royal pilgrims. Bishop Reginald Catchpole, the son of a wealthy local lawyer, was born in Dunwich about 1479. One of Henry VIII’s court, he founded the college of St Bartholomew in the town in 1528, which is now known as St Bartholomew’s, Dunwich, a co-educational boarding school which stands in beautiful early Victorian gothic revival buildings to this day . He remains one of the town’s most famed figures and a statue of Bishop Catchpole can be seen in the Elizabethan Thursday Market. Following Catchpole’s fall from grace he was beheaded at Tower Hill, London, on May 12th, 1535. Henry VIII was also responsible for the closure of both the Greyfriar’s Priory and the Blackfriars Priory and St. Anna’s convent, and dispersal of the monks during the Reformation. The King’s men were extremely vindictive: they even burned the last Prior of Blackfriars, Richard Grey,in the Monday Market, while accusing the monks of “gross blasphemy.foul sorceries and heathenish rites”.

The Thursday Market was also the site of the burning of the five Dunwich Martyrs in 1555, who suffered the stake for their Protestant beliefs and who are commemorated by the market cross which marks the location of this grisly event. 1645 saw the hanging of 12 women accused of Witchcraft here during the reign of terror of the notorious Matthew Hopkins, following the Dunwich Assize. Hopkins is said to have cursed the town as a “sinful bed of fornicators, wytches and braggarts, which should have fallen in to the sea.” Many occult and ghostly legends cluster around Dunwich.

In the 17th century Dunwich was a major centre for emigration to New England. This was organised by the Town Lecturer, Obadiah Whateley. Another resident, born in born in 1805 was Nathaniel Ward –Phillips, a prominent New England minister who is best known for his work Thaumaturgical Prodigies in the New-England Canaan. The 17th and 18th century also saw the rise of Smuggling in the town,and there are continued rumours of a system of hidden smugglers tunnels linking churches, old inns and the caves which mark th cliffs dating from this period. The painters John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough both visited and painted scenes around Dunwich in the 18th century, and other famous sometime residents include Horatio Nelson and the novelist H Rider-Haggard. Short story writer MR James, noted for his supernatural fiction, was also a frequent visitor to Dunwich – scholars dispute whether Dunwich or nearby Aldeburgh was the inspiration for the fictional town of Seaburgh in his short story Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad and A Warning to the Curious.

Modern Dunwich

An attractive East Anglian port city, best known for it’s historic Cathedral, Dunwich is still a popular seaside resort in season, and a commercially successful harbour town, returning an MP and a Euro MP in Dunwich (sometimes referred to as Coastal Suffolk) constituency. In 1988 the post is held by Arthur Murray-Fforbes, who represents the Conservative Party and was elected by a majority of 12,000. The Town Council represent 12 wards in the Borough, with 7 Conservatives, 3 Labour, one Liberal and an Independent councillor. The current mayor is Councillor Geraldine Mournley (Con). Dunwich Centre contains a mix of architectural styles, from well preserved medieval buildings like St. Crispin’s Guildhouse to Elizabethan black and white timbered buildings, through to the modern concrete glass and gleaming metal of the office buildings, bus station and mall. Much of the town centre architecture is Georgian, though the outlying housing tends to be Victorian as are the houses which overlook the front on Cliffview Road, many of which are today boarding houses catering to the tourist industry. The whole town is dominated by the towering Gothic Cathedral, one of the finest examples of medieval Gothic in Britain, the exterior largely untouched except fo r the Victorian Gotchic extension to the Nave, which fortunately complements the existing building. The second oldest building in Dunwich is St.Werburgha’s the current structure dating from 1077, and the medieval St. Crispin’s Guildhouse, which dates to 1421.

Dunwich has undergone an extensive gentrification programme in recent years, principally centred around the waterfront. This has turned a run-down dock area into an emerging residential and commercial centre, with Cafe bars, restaurants, speciality shopping and many pubs and night clubs.


Dunwich is still a flourishing port today, handling just under a million tonnes of cargo each year. It is the site of three breweries, belonging to Tolly Cobbold,Greene King and Adnams, which are major employers, as is the Dunwich Sugar Beet Factory, whose concrete silos dominate the skyline. The pumping of treated waste from this factory in to the North Sea by the concrete encased outflow pipe remains controversial, but the “White Pier” can be walked some two hundred yards in to the North Sea by the foolhardy who risk being washed away by surging waves. The outflow pipe was built in 1974 following complaints from locals about the smell of sugar beet waste.Industry around Dunwich has had a strong agricultural bias with the sugar beet factory and with Gartons (manufacturers of combine harvesters and specialist agricultural machinery) still a major employer, and the cattle market held in the Monday Market as it has been for centuries. There are light industrial units in the two trading estates which lie to the south and east of Dunwich proper.


Dunwich has never had much luck with its football team, Dunwich City Football Club. Established in 1898, the team enjoyed little success, with a history of Third and Fourth Division success at best. Playing in green, grey and White striped shirts at the London Road Stadium, their main rivals are Norwich City F.C. and Ipswich Town F.C, both notably better teams. Dunwich has a more successful Speedway team, the Dunwich Devils, who are based at their Catchpole Stadium track, on the outskirts of Dunwich, for over 50 years. Greyhound Racing also takes place at the Catchpole Stadium, and is often better attended.

Dunwich Heath, a gorse covered sandy area just to the west of the town filled with small woods proves a popular recreational area, both for locals and tourists. It is popularly said to be haunted by the spirit of an executed 18th century soldier, the drummer “Black Toby”, and by “Black Shuck”, the folkloric hell hound of East Anglia. The remains of the gibbet mentioned by James in his travelogue may have led rise to such stories.

Ghosts of Dunwich

DUNWICH: A lost city, Dunwich was one of the major ports of medieval England. The usual phantom monks prowl the ruins of Greyfriar’s monastery.

On the beach you may well see a young man clad in the bright clothing of an Elizabethan sailor. Don’t hail him; he is another of Dunwich’s many ghosts…

Inland of modern Dunwich lie Dunwich Heath and the woods. If you go down to these woods tonight you could be in for a very big surprise, for they are roamed by not one but two ghosts! The first has a pretty story attached. In life he was the brother of the Lord of the manor who wished for nothing more than to be allowed to marry his true love. Sadly this was not allowed for she was a mere serving maid and his brother expressly forbade them to marry. Furthermore he was never allowed to see the girl again. In despair he took to wandering the path that leads through the woods hoping for a glimpse of her, but alas this was not to be. One day he could stand it no longer and dropped dead of a broken heart. So the story goes; I personally suspect pneumonia caught from the biting cold wind off the sea more than a heavy heart as the reason for this romantic heroes demise! At least today he has more company of equal social stature, for the other apparition is that of a Victorian squire galloping through the woods on a fine Arab horse, doubtless off to evict some poor widow into the snow or tie an innocent hearted maid to a railway track, moustache twiddling as he does. Well it’s a nice idea anyway…

No ghost book is complete without a shaggy dog story and Old Shuck, eyes as big as saucers pads his way down to Dunwich headland to scare to death those unfortunate enough to see him cross their path. )Adapted from my Suffolk Ghost Book, Spectral Suffolk)

Libraries & Research in (fictional) Dunwich

It is likely the players will want to grub around and look stuff up. This means they need to consider access to the various libraries, newspapers and museums of Dunwich. Unfortunately lots of documentation is distributed in different archives and collections, but dedicated effort can pay off…


  • The Dunwich Town Library is a branch of East Suffolk Libraries based in Ipswich. A two story modern (1977) brick building it stands on Wyke Street opposite the Bus Station, which needs to be added to the map (sort of off High Street between the Markets). It is divided in to main lending, children’s, a couple of shelves of music, and upstairs a local studies and reference library with a small cafe (pricy!) and art gallery displaying a range of local artists water colours for sale. Several students work here. There is a turnstile security system, and pretty good selection of books. There are microfiche readers and a limited selection of newspapers. There are two photocopiers here, and a computer system which is networked to other East Suffolk libraries for ILL.
  • The Record Office is on Keble Street, in a splendid Georgian town house set back from the road. It is mainly filled with genealogists, has 8 microfiche machines, and a couple of downstairs meeting rooms. Extensive newspaper archives exist here as well as some ancient manuscripts kept in a s secure area and orderable for viewing under supervision. There is also a fairly good local history library, and helpful staff. You have to sign in and out and membership costs £5 a year and requires decent ID. Highlights include the Assize Records and extensive Wills and Probate Records.
  • Cathedral Close has the Diocesan Archive, with books dating back to the 13th century, many in Latin. It is a closed private collection, with permission granted to access for specific research requests by the Dean and Chapter’s Office, but requiring two academic or clerical references in support and a written application. Most Parish Records are however available on microfiche from the Local Record Office.
  • St Bartholomew’s School has a small collection of documents pertaining to the history of Dunwich, and the local area, plus some rare books, but is a private collection – apply to the School Bursar, citing interest and reason and providing appropriate references.
  • The Local History Society has rooms in Carmichael House adjacent to the Maritime Life Museum, including much to do with the history of the fishing fleet, Port Records from the 17th to 19th century and Customs House records for a similar period, plus various documents on old Dunwich and masses of Genealogical Research.
  • The HE College has an extensive library on campus, open to students but with a few restricted special collections.


    East Anglia in 1988 has two major regional daily newspapers…The East Anglian Daily Times, always called the EADT by locals which maintains a small Dunwich Office on the High Street above Clarks Shoe Shop, and the Eastern Daily Press referred to as the EDP which maintains a small office on the Thursday Market. The EDP has more of an East Suffolk and Norfolk emphasis to my mind, the EADT more inclined to reports from Essex and the west of the County, though it prints an East Suffolk edition for Dunwich, Ipswich and Lowestoft readers. (NB: in 2005 the EDP concentrates on Norfolk, the EADT on Suffolk and Essex).

    The Eastern Daily Press dates back to October 10th, 1870, and the EADT to 1890. Both are fully archived at the Record Office in Keble Street.

    A third regional newspaper, The Suffolk Free Press existed from 1850 to 1951, before closing. It’s local version, the Dunwich Free Press still comes out each Thursday, and is the primary newspaper read for local news by Dunwich folk who choose to buy a paper. A thick weekly almost anything happening in the Dunwich region is worthy of some attention, and the often sermonising editorials and deeply conservative columnists are often amusing to an outsider. Local headlines include such past classics as “Garden bonfire gets out of control”, “Frost killed Prize Marrow” and “Woman has Purse Stolen” (it subsequently turned up in her handbag). The large offices and Press are based on Walberswick Road, and the News Room welcome stories.

    The DFP offices also publishes the Dunwich Gazette, a weekly freebie delivered on Mondays throughout the town and 90% advertising. The Gazette is rivalled by the Dunwich Eye published on Wednesdays, and distributed wherever paperboys do not throw it in the Estuary, by Pickman Group Papers of Ipswich.

    The Historian may be interested in these newspapers available at Dunwich Record Office (and largely based on real newspapers)-

  • The Ipswich & Dunwich Journal, published 1740 to 1855.
  • Bury & Norwich Post 1782 to 1952
  • Suffolk Herald 1828 to 1835
  • Suffolk & Essex Free Press 1855 to 1951 These papers really existed (albeit modified slightly for the game), and thanks ot the wonderful work of Foxearth Local History Society you can view extracts here which gives you a real feel for Suffolk history.
    The following are (fictitious, based on Ipswich) past Dunwich papers…
  • The Dunwich Journal, or The Weekly Mercury (1720-1733)
  • The Dunwich Gazette (1733-1737)
  • The Ipswich Journal (1739-1817)
  • The Nightlife of (fictional) Dunwich

    Dunwich supports quite a varied night life, because of the student population (ok, only 1,570 but still more than most Suffolk towns), the large hinterland of villages, and the summer tourist population. While pubs predominate there are a few nightclubs, bars and restaurants.

    Nightclubs of Dunwich

    While Dunwich is not a major resort town, there are several small clubs.

    Dancing In The Dark is a converted cinema on the High Street. The downstairs is today Anglian Windows, and the side door always flanked by bouncers leads to a steep staircase which winds up to the large bar space and dancefloor. The club is decorated in smoked black glass and polished metal, with russet furnishings. Comfortable, fairly spacious and with a sprung wood dancefloor the carpets are inevitably sticky from the traditional student drink of Snakebite and Black.
    It’s open several nights, with Friday and Saturday traditionally townie nights, and students dominating Mondays and Wednesdays. The schedule is

  • Friday – Mainstream Chart music – Enya, Yazz, Erasure, Deacon Blue, Jason Donovan, Pet Shop Boys, Tanita Tikaram, Bananarama, Phil Collins, U2, Whitney Houston, Kylie Minogue, Luther Vandross, Bon Jovi. (£5 before 11pm)
  • Saturday- Mainstream Chart music -(£5 before 11pm)
  • Monday – Goth/Alternative/Indie – Cult, Sisters, Mission, Bauhaus, The Smiths, The Cure, etc. (£3 before 11pm)
  • Wednesday – Student Night, NUS only, Sports teams predominate. Chart music. (£1 before 11pm, NUS only.) This is the main nightclub for locals, who were born in Suffolk. Students are tolerated by most customers, but it is rough if you are an outsider, and not considered safe at weekends. In the summer the locals are lost in the crowd of tourists, and the club is far more busy and probably even more violent. Casual sex in the disgusting toilets is much more common then than off season! Dress code on weekends, but casual.The Waterfront This is a yuppie wine bar and club in the prestigious new Quayside development. Popular mainly with townsfolk who are not from Suffolk originally, but have moved here in search of work or a better quality of life, it caters to middle class punters. It is prohibitively expensive for students (admission starts at £10, and remember this is 1988!). The downstairs bar is open monday to Saturday, but the upstairs club is only open off season on Fridays and Saturdays. It is however the largest club in Dunwich, with a huge open dance floor, two bars, and a small restaurant area through arches on one wall. The music is exclusively chart dance with a definite New Romantic feel (it opened in 1983). A lot of the poseurs here talk and mingle far more than they dance though, though the dancefloor is crowded by midnight. The decor is black glass with pale lime furnishings, and lots of chrome fixtures, not dissimilar to Dancing in the Dark but much cleaner. The walls are pastel green, and the lighting far more soft, with the many large pot plants and lit up fountain giving it a more upmarket feel. Very strict dress code, and no compromise staff. The police will respond fast to incidents here.Gotham City – a small but intimate club situated in what used to be the Hamilton Hotel, near the train station. Plays exclusively Goth. Metal and Alternative, with some really obscure stuff. Nice Victorian decor, but the plaster is falling off the walls, the floorboards are dodgy and the whole building is close to being condemned. The upstairs is a mass of empty hotel rooms in a state of dereliction, and the staff quite illegally live there, with a number of friends. The brewery  has  since lost interest and is waiting for it to fall in to disrepair enough to be developed, as it is a listed building. Two main areas – the bar, and the old ballroom, which has a jury rigged set of decks precariously set up on tables at one end, so that records and CDs frequently skip if the dance floor is busy. Admission is £2, but the bouncers are indifferent and enforcement comes down to the staff. Cheap, and to be fair, naff. Goth students and townies cheerfully mingle here. Only open on Wednesday and Saturday nights. Saturday always opens with a terrible local band set. No dress code, so goth mingles with blue denim and casual students.Warehouse Dunwich– Acid House is just becoming more mainstream, and Warehouse 5 on the waterfront in the St.Oswalds area is the place to go for this kind of music. Smiley faces, bandanas, dayglo clothes and serious partying, despite the fact the place does not even serve alcohol. There is however a soft drinks table, and the regulars seem to cope. The bouncers are not from the local firm, and are rumoured to be heavyhanded with trouble makers. Toilet facilities are primitive – but the music is the thing. Often long past 2am, the constant noise complaints from local residents will probably force closure soon. It really is just a warehouse with decks and speakers and a huge lighting rig. Admission £5, but the bouncers require you to look the part or at least be streetwise.

    Cowboy Joes Really just a bar with a late license, open Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Wild West decor, minute dance floor, and both types of music, Country and Western, washed down with generous helpings of rock n roll nostalgia on Saturday nights, and Elvis every night. The bouncers are from the family who own it, and brook absolutely no nonsense, and the average age is thirties and up. Students will probably not get through the door, unless with their parents.

    Discotheque 1999 – on the Pier, this is really what it sounds like. Glitterballs,loads of ‘futuristic’ metallic foil, staff in “space age” foil uniforms. Closed  n off season (from mid-September to April) so fairly irrelevant to the game, but horror stories are told of it. Caters exclusively to tourists of all ages, and often has minor TV celebrity guest dj’s. It look like a metal portacabin, and the sp[ace theme is done to death in a really tasteless fashion. If only it were summer you could enjoy the nightly wet tee shirt contests. Just thank your lucky stars karaoke is still to come to England!

    Oh I do like to be beside the seaside!

    Dunwich is a seaside resort town, albeit a small one. Since the 1970’s and the advent of cheap package holidays and the fashion for holidaying abroad, the seafront has slipped in to decline, and its faded grandeur is in places, well tatty. The college year opens in late September, when the cutting wind off the North Sea and seasonal sea fog has driven all but the hardiest of tourists away, and as a result the Front is closed, shuttered and often partially deserted.

    I shall describe a few of the landmarks of the Front here. Imagine them rainswept, grey and littered with the rubbish of the summer holidaymakers…

    The Beach

    The sandy beach at Dunwich is the reason for the tourism, and while it has not won any awards for cleanliness in years, and the water quality is dubious, some people do swim heres till. The currents can be treacherous, and the flag system is operated from May to October, warning when it is dangerous to go out. The beach is relatively wide, but the drop off under water is sudden, and summer bathing fatalities are not unknown. The council does make a dedicated effort to clean the beach of rubbish however, and litter pickers operate each evening at sunset, even off season, just as beachcombers greet each dawn all year round. Fishermen are not uncommon, using rod and line rather than the crab fishing one sees in the harbour.

    The beach is never empty during the day except in rainstorms, or unless one walks up all the way to where it peters out among the cliffs. Great black groynes break it up,sticking in to the sea, and a line of tiny beach huts can provide shelter from the wind, flanked by the desolate shuttered ice cream and fish and chip sheds, closed for the winter. The eerie shrieks of circling seagulls resonate across the wintry sands; but then living in Dunwich, the crawk of the seagull is the soundtrack to dy to day life. Out at sea great passenger ferries bound for Scandinavia sail stately past, bound for or just out of Harwich, and on a clear night one can just about make out the flares of far away oil rigs on the Dogger Bank.

    A strip of grass separates The Promenade from the beach, and it has a small Victorian public toilets, open all night, and a number of park benches set among attractive flowers dying with the frosts. Ten pence will allow use of the Telescope mounted at the viewpoint, which allows a wonderful look at the expanse of grey heaving icy water, and the freezing white foaming waves. If you are lucky you might see a porpoise or even a seal, but they are uncommon here now, and the seals never beach.

    The smell of rotting seaweed, dead fish and salt water permeates everything. When the weather is poor, a beach out of season is a godforsaken, desolate place.

    The Pier

    The Victorian Pier projects from close to Bryant Bros. Amusement Park for a hundred and fifty yards out in to the North Sea. Few fall off it, owing to the iron fence which runs along the edge, but standing looking over the edge the twelve foot down in to the raging sea can be unnerving.

    The entrance is a large gaudy wood and iron frontage, with two turnstiles, a locked fire exit gate, a small ticket office and a kitchen/toilet for staff. In winter the decrepit caretaker Herbert Wrongdon appears at dawn to unlock, and locks up again an hour after dusk, taking £3 from anglers for a days fishing from the end of the pier. At night security guards are paid to visit, and occasionally drive up, and more irregularly unlock and wander round with flashlights.

    The Pier can be divided in to three sections.

  • The first part is the Pier Amusements has the great Ferris Wheel, which looms over the beach,and ana assortment of tiny fairground rides of the sort catering to toddlers, flanked on each side by carefully shuttered food concessions, hoopla stalls, coconut shys and a small arcade machines hut. It’s really just an extension of the Amusement PArk, but not owned by the Bryant Bros who own that. In winter the only thing still working is the noddy car (cost ten pence, no one over the age of 5) and the bubblegum dispenser.
  • Further up is Discotheque 1999, a small white metal shell partially hiding the Victorian Pier Theatre beyond. The Theatre has been closed for five years now, and only ever held an audience of 200 persons in cramped and dingy conditions. You can walk passed it’s boarded up and dilapidated front past faded posters recalling the days Tommy Cooper and Sid James played here, and the “Black and White Minstrel” Show did Summer spectacles, along the right side of the Pier. Its wood is long since rotted, the lightbulbs which glared out the roof from it all broken. It si scheduled fo demolition, but the Council never seem to get round to it.
  • Finally one reaches the end of the Pier, with a small selection of booths, a souvenir shop and a shed used by anglers to brew up and avoid the worst of the weather. Bizarrely an old but working red BT phone box stands here, and is sometimes used by anglers to call taxis to pick them up form the gate at the end of a wearying day.There is some real concern about the structural soundness of the Pier: Discotheque 1999 may be stretching the century old beams further than they can support, and next season may be its last. The Pier is closed from September 15th to May 15th inclusive; in season admission costs fifty pence.Finally under the pier is an unsavoury place, where discarded condoms, needles and garbage deter all but the filthiest tramps and teenage glue sniffers. Brave adolescents do however enjoy the thrill of climbing out over the sea on the network of wooden and iron girders, and taught rusted wire which holds the structure together.It was built to enable large steamers to tie up at the end, as their draughts wouldn’t permit them to go nearer to the shore. At the same period as the nearby dockland was being developed it was heavily modernised, with a miniature railway, fun palace and rides being added to it. In 1939 it was taken over by the Army and mined to prevent it being used by the Germans in the event of an invasion. There are still a couple of overgrown pillboxes on the landward end.The ferry terminal took most of the pier’s ferry business away from it, but the Waverly and Balmoral still stop there during their coastal cruises.

    The Bryant Bros. Amusements Park

  • A great wooden shell wall, 30 feet high, garishly painted and festooned with signs encircles this large oval shaped amusement park, firmly closed off season. In the summer it is a high point of the beach scene, thronged with screaming children and exasperated parents. In winter, it is like a great mausoleum, a tomb to summers past. Built in the 1930’s, it has a great roller coaster, a haunted house, hall of mirrors, six different gambling and arcade areas, many roundabouts, a waltzer, dodgems and many more stalls and shops. All are locked, and the only life is in the administration building, a two storey building with a number of offices, off season home to the bored team of two security guards who are paid to loiter, while performing routine maintenance. Shrouded in tarpaulin the rides look eerie, and the roller coaster is locally said to be haunted, but so dangerous are the reputations of the workers who double as security off season that absolutely no one local would even think of breaking in. There is a story of a girl who vanished years back in the hall of mirrors, and the ghost on the roller coaster is said to relate to a tragic accident in 1955 which claimed 4 lives when a car plunged off the rails… An eerie, silent and thoroughly miserable place, filled with dark corners which in the summer shelter young lovers. Students avoid it.
  • Churches of (fictional) Dunwich


    The Medieval Guilds of Dunwich (which persist to this day in the form of businessmens clubs and dominate the local Chamber of Commerce) derive their names from the major parish churches of Dunwich. The most important ecclesiastical building is clearly the Gothic Cathedral dedicated to Our Lady Stella Maris (Star of the Sea). The current Bishop of Dunwich is the Right Reverend Robert Curtaigne, who sits in the House of Lords, and the Dean is the Rev. Harold Wyke. The Cathedral was established by Saint Felix. The Bishop of Dunwich appointed by Sigebert, he met Sigebert in France. The Pope Honorius authorised Felix as Bishop of East Anglia. He is an obscure saint, but his cult was popular in Soham, Cambridgeshire, from where his remains were taken out of East Anglia during a relic raid by a rival monastery in the Middle Ages. A Native Burgundian his own copy of the gospel, written in Lombard characters, was held at Eye for centuries and oaths sworn upon it – it was known as the Red Book of Eye. His feast day is March 8th.

    The Cathedral also contains the Shrine of St. Sigebert, King of East Anglia, who retired to the monastic life at Bury St Edmunds in 635. When the pagan King of the Mercians, Penda, invaded, he was forced against his will to lead the army. He chose to ride unarmed but for an ash wand, and was slain on the field of battle, a true and holy pacificistic martyr. His feast day is January 25th, and he is patron Saint of Dunwich.

    The Cathedral is worthy of its own entry, which will follow when I find the time.

    Other Churches.

  • St. Crispins – dedicated in 1415, the Church was destroyed during the Zeppelin raid of March 1918 by an incendiary bomb. Parts of the walls of the nave and graveyard survive, and it is a popular picnic spot in the park. A memorial tablet lists all those who lost their life in the raid, and who sacrificed their lives in two world wars.
  • All Saints – dates from 1074, but was extensively remodelled in the 18th century, and then in the 1890s. Boasts a fine spire built by the subscription of the East Suffolk hunt in 1883 to facilitate Steeplechasing and finding their way home in foggy weather!
  • St Leonards, another Norman Church which stood to the south of the town was almost destroyed by the Great Storm  of 1287 but finally lost when it collapsed following the Great East Anglian Earthquake of 1884, which led to the cliff crumbling and the Church partially falling in to the sea. Now only the tower remains and part of the structure, the nave falling a few inches a year in to the sea.
  • St. Werburgha’s – probably named after St. Witheburga, who had a shrine at East Dereham in Norfolk, where the churchyard features St Witheburga’s well, with a reputation as a healing well. Her legend states that a white doe used to furnish her with milk, and she is always depicted with the white deer. Her body was taken under unusual circumstances, in 974, when Abbot Brithnoth of Ely led a party of armed men to Dereham, and threw a great feast. having got the folk of Dereham drunk they then stole the Saint’s body and fled, and reached Brandon by the time the outraged citizens of Dereham caught up. they escaped with their lives and the Saint by leaping in a boat and sailing away, while the men of Dereham gave chase along the banks and harried them with spears, darts and arrows. They made their escape however, and St Witheburga now lies in Ely Cathedral. Such was the nature of some Dark Age piety! The oldest Church in Dunwich. This Saxon Church was rebuilt after the Norman Conquest and is Dunwich’s oldest surviving church.
  • St. Martins – a town centre Church which today is the location for the Dunwich Museum of Maritime Life, having finally closed as a place of worship in the 1950s. It was rebuilt following the collapse of its tower in the Great Storm of 1287, and is a fine example of late 13th century ecclesiastical architecture, whose interior boasts unusual window designs and carvings.
  • St.Edmunds (formerly St. Nicholas) – today a Roman Catholic Church, it was bought by the Catholics in 1848 and rededicated amidst scenes of protest and a riot which led to much ill feeling for many years.
  • St. John the Baptist is a fine medieval church with some fine glass, particular the North Window. It is the scene of the annual Midsummer bonfire, a Dunwich tradition where locals burn “Bad Abbott Grey” in effigy and participate in much drunken celebration. Abbott Grey was the last Prior of the Blackfriar’s Priory, and was popularly believed to be a sorceror in league with the devil prior to his execution dutring the Reformation.
  • St.Peters – today one of the largest congregations in Dunwich, owing the Charismatic (and charismatic) preaching of the Reverend Baines. If you like electric guitars and choruses in Church, this is the church for you.
  • St. Micheals is now a Methodist Chapel,noted for its fine choir. The modern building is a redbrick Victorian structure, the former building having fallen in to disrepair in the early 18th century.
  • Temple Church – once one of the churches of the Knights Templars, the building was rennovated in the 18th century and the fine dome dates from that period. Declared redundant in 1932 it is now home to Dunwich’s Masonic Lodge who are well known for their acts of charity, and who possess a women’s auxillary.
  • St Bartholomew’ is the Chapel attached to the Private School. The fine tombs and memorial brasses of the Grisham family can be viewed by arrangement with the Bursar’s Office.
  • St. Simeons is a modern Roman Catholic church on the Ipswich Way Council Estate.
  • Bethesda Pentecostal is a modern Church with an enthusiastic flock which meet in central Dunwich.
  • There is also a Church of Latter Day Saints (“Mormon”) on Sea Way.
  • The Society of Friends (Quakers) maintain a meeting house on Walberswick Road.
  • King George Dock and North Quay District

    The King George Dock was opened in 1923 because the Old Docks were no longer able to handle the increasing larger cargo ships. It can accommodate ships of 800ft in length, 100ft in breadth and with a maximum draught of 40ft. Large, four storey reinforced concrete warehouses – built in linear style – line the sides of the North Quay and there is a rail link between it and the King George Dock. There are also about a dozen rail mounted cranes, each 115ft tall and installed in the 1970’s, alongside the Dock itself as well as the railway marshaling yard and turntable. These last two are located between the Dock and Quay as is the container yard that covers several acres.

    The King George Dock was the scene of the Dunwich Explosion in 1942 when a munitions vessel, the S.S. Elsinore Castle, exploded killing 27 people.
    There is a rail link from the marshaling yard to Dunwich, which crosses the entrance of the Dock via a steel lattice swing bridge. This was originally powered by diesel engines, but was converted to electic drive in 1952.
    Marine Parade, which runs along the east side of North Quay, was built in 1921-23 and is incoporated into the elevated concrete and rock causeway forming the modern sea defences. This was built to not only provide vehicular access to the the ferry terminal at the the northern end of the Quay, but to improve on the cast-iron Victorian groynes, which were considered inadequate by the 1920’s. The Art Deco ferry terminal was completed in 1925 and steamers ran a service from Dunwich to Copenhagen, Gothenburg and Rotterdam until 1963, when cheap foreign holidays finally forced it to close. It now houses the Dunwich Harbour Master’s office and a local Customs & Excise office.

    Two jetties jutting out on the seaward side of Marine Parade and adjacent to the ferry terminal, enabled ferries to tie up. These are now used by private craft such as yachts. Pleasure steamers could also dock at the Quay itself. Further down the coast is the pleasure pier built in 1896. As you’d expect for the period, it is a very ornate iron construction with wooden decking.

    Business has declined since World War II, now the docks only handle 500,000 tons of cargo a year and Harwich has taken over the North Sea ferry traffic due to the relative remoteness of Dunwich.

    At night the Docks and North Quay are almost deserted, though patrolled by pairs of security guards, and with a skeleton night staff. Most of the modern warehouses are 24 hour however, and if you looked inside you would find a scene of bustling activity, as betrayed by the occasional  container lorry coming in and out. The whole area is guarded by barbed wire and chain link fence like a modern industrial estate, and some floodlights cover busy thoroughfares and the carparks.There are two entrance gates, though entry by boat, swimming or walking along the railroad tracks is an easy way round the fence.

    Donovan’s Burgers provides coffee and Burgers from 12 midnight till 2am, and from 8am to 2pm, and is a small caravan parked in the car park. Workers from different warehouses or busy unloading a night arrival in port sometimes gather here to fraternize. The Harbour Masters office is also open 24/7, with at least two staff, on duty, and usually two Dunwich pilots playing darts on standby as well. During the day heavy lorries, busy warehouse workers and gangs of dockers make this quite a busy area, and security is fairly lax.

    Naseby House, Hall of Residence

    A self catering hall of residence on King’s Road, Dunwich. Home to 17 students and one member of staff, the warden Donald, who is a new lecturer in Cultural Studies. Relatiely expensive, and a good 15 minute walk from the main campus.

    1988 Residents

    Basement – Warden’s Flat (Donald), Launderette, bathrooms, boiler room, cleaner’s cupboard.

    Ground floor
    Ed – room 1 – 2nd year, from Farnborough,sports student.
    Laura – ( 3rd year senior Student) – room 2, plays hockey and lacrosse. Verry attractive.
    Kate – room 3 – 2nd year, new ager, irritable, indeed most say bitchy. Incense and her kimono her trademarks.
    Frank – room 4, 2nd year from Ely, muscular, religion student. Handsome

    They have the largest kitchen, and Laura’s room has a en suite toilet and shower.

    First Floor
    Louis Clutterbuck- room 1 – mature student (back right)[Kev]
    veronica Isabella Dee- room 2 (front right) [Luke]
    Clovis Lockwood- room 3 – [DC] (front left)
    Clare Mayfair- room 4 [Ben] (back left)

    Has a kitchen and toilet.

    Second Floor
    The Sports student girls
    Nessie- room 1 – sports student, leader of these ladies, from Macclesfield.
    Evelyn- room 2 – sports student, sings along loudly to various awful bands.
    – room 3
    Dora – room 4 – sports student, very strong.
    Liz – room 5 – sports student, friendly.

    This floor has its own bathrooms and toilet as well as small kitchen.

    Third Floor
    The Christian Union Girls
    Room 1 – Belinda, from Coventry, 2nd year Religion
    Room 2 – Diane, from Aylesury, doing History/religion in 2nd year
    Room 3 – Amy from Dartmouth doing geography. Very pretty. 2nd year.
    Room 4 – Clare from Birmingham doing 2nd year religion.
    Room 5 – Severina Harris in theory, 2nd year religion student. rarely if ever sleeps in halls though, but pays the fees.

    There is a toilet at top of stairs, and a reasonable kitchen.

    The Attic
    Off limits to students, and heavily locked, the door is on the front left of the third floor.

    That’s as far as I got in the background rather than plot and NPC. Thought might amuse somebody!

    cj x

    Running Ars Magica – advice for new story guides, part one

    Posted in Games by Chris Jensen Romer on October 28, 2009

    Ars Magica 5 – Advice for new Storyguides!

    I am writing this article to hopefully help new Storyguides (referees/gamemaster) in coming to terms with the roleplaying game Ars Magica, published by  Atlas Games. The whole Ars Magica community is hoping that the new edition will bring many new people into the game – it is much clearer and better presented than the 4th edition in my opinion, and makes an ideal starting point. However certain things about the game are not immediately obvious, and so hopefully these simple ideas will prove useful in coming to terms with what is a unique, challenging and very rewarding RPG experience!

    Ars Magica 5th Edition - the only book you really need to run your game

    Ars Magica 5th Edition - the only book you really need to run your game

    About the Author

    I am no authority on Ars Magica; despite having briefly played two earlier editions, I did not really come to Ars Magica until 4th edition circa 1996. It took many years for me to really get in to the game, and my first major saga, as Ars campaigns are called, did not start till 2000. I have written for the game (on The Mysteries Revised Edition and The Lion & The Lily; The Normandy Tribunal), but my understanding of the rules is significantly less than many other Ars players, though I was involved in the play testing for Ars Magica 5th edition – but so were over one hundred other folks. All my suggestions should definitely be taken with a large pinch of salt – your experience may vary distinctly, so do not take anything I write as normative, spoken with authority, or even particularly useful – every games group’s  idea of what makes a fun game is different!

    I offer this advice with humility – I am aware that everything I say can be contested, and disagreed with. It is however free advice, and it has worked for me over several very enjoyable years of running the game.

    The Lion and the Lily - 5th edition Tribunal Sourcebook for Normandy

    The Lion and the Lily - 5th edition Tribunal Sourcebook for Normandy

    Your First Problem

    The first issue you will face is of course finding players. It is my contention that different RPG’s work well with different size groups – in my experience D&D/d20 works well with 5-8 players, to allow a wide spread of classes, and Pendragon can work with fairly large groups – though my game with 26 players did have a few issues!  Call of Cthulhu works best with just 2-3 players. Ars Magica is a complex game, and for a first game I would recommend no more than four players, plus yourself. With six players, a game may well become  a little unmanageable for a new referee, or slow. My honest advice is that for your first session, two to three players is plenty.

    Many players have heard that Ars Magica is a game for history buffs, medievalists and those who love number crunching. This is far from the truth, and it is important that you stress it is a game of Mythic Europe, and that the game reality is therefore based upon you and the players version of history. Almost anything can and will be done; some sagas make Monty Python & The Holy Grail look like a PhD thesis on Medieval Europe, while others are painstakingly researched and ‘authentic’. Some have dragons rampaging through the countryside, merfolk haunting lonely seashores, and wise women herbalists in every village., in others players lose hours discussing the protein yiled of a medieval turnip.

    The degree to which your Mythic Europe is historical and mythic will be addressed later, under the title Player Expectations – but for now, I encourage folks to use history as a tool, not let it become a chore. In one of my most successful games the Magi prevented the signing of the Magna Carta– no matter! They may well change history, so don’t worry, and the presence of an ahistorical magical technology, Hermetic Magic, may well have had profound effects on culture and society. You aim to have fun – and if fun involves rigorously accurate medievalism, go that route. If not, do not. No one will care,  as long as you have fun.

    Once you have found at least one player, which is enough at pinch, or preferably two or three, get them together to chat over the game. My advice is not to invite them to the game venue – that suggests you intend to just start playing. Go to a bar, a pizza restaurant, or a friend’s house. Stress you want to chat roleplaying, not actually run a game that night. Do however take the rule book with you!

    Tales of Mythic Europe - an excellent selection of scenarios for the new referee

    Tales of Mythic Europe - an excellent selection of scenarios for the new referee

    What to Tell the Prospective Players

    Well, that is down to you. I personally would explain the game was about medieval wizards, and is set around 1220 though any time from 1066 to 1300 will work just as well, or even earlier or later. Explain that the game has “the coolest magic system ever!”, and that it takes place over many years, taking in the whole of the characters lives, focussing on the exciting bits when they go on adventures rather than the day to day timescale of most rpgs. However explain that on adventures the timescale is often second to second when facing a terrible wraith, an angry werewolf or pleading for your lives at a Tribunal (a Council of Wizards).

    Yet you will also account for exactly what your magi does in all his ‘downtime’ – he may be reading books to gain experience points in magic or skills, inventing or learning new spells, making magic items, brewing longevity potions, or much else! The possibilities are huge, and indeed a little daunting, but the players will have the opportunity to learn as they play. They DO NOT HAVE TO UNDERSTAND ALL THE RULES FIRST!

    The Covenant, Your Home

    The setting for the game is a Covenant, or a community of Wizards. They may be the only Magi present, or there may be others in the Covenant – really that is down to what kind of game they want to play.

    If they are just founding a new Covenant (called a Spring Covenant), they may well be the only magi there, indeed probably will. They will all have just finished their apprenticeship as magi, and having learnt magi are trying to set up a new home. Alternatively, they can be junior members of a more powerful older covenant – they may have access to better resources, but also will have to expect to negotiate with, and perhaps serve or defer to older and (hopefully) wiser NPC magi. This is the first decision you will have to make: and while in many games it will come down to the Storyguide’s choice, I strongly suggest that in Ars Magica these should be collective decisions. Which appeals best to them? Let them talk it over, and then make a group decision…

    The Covenant is like a character, one shared by all the players. By encouraging prospective players in helping define what the game will be like, you really enter in to the spirit of things…

    Then ask the players if they would like to design their first Covenant, or discover or build it in play. Explain if the design it they will be following rules, which give you points to allocate, and good things and bad things to design. It makes it really their covenant. (There is an excellent book called Covenants, with many complicated options. A this stage if you own that supplement just use the additional Boons and Hooks – if you don;’t understand that concept yet, look it up in the main rules.)

    If they let the Storyguide design the Covenant then it may be a ruined or abandoned place that they come to take over and reconstruct. I would advise letting the players design it, but if they are dismayed or not interested in the prospect, they don’t have to! Do tell them before they spend the points they should try and imagine what it looks and fees like, and then generate their characters. The actual Covenant will be drawn up much later… So is it a castle, a cave system, a floating ice palace, a glen in an enchanted forest, hidden in a bustling city, atop a towering mountain, or in a magical region, a sort of pocket dimension? Perhaps a village on stilts in a marsh, a ship which sails from port to port, or a burning tower of flame which is hidden from the world by powerful magics? Let the players decide, and encourage them to be creative. There must be friendly villages somewhere nearby – these are the covenfolk, who perform day to day duties and provide food. How do the Magi find food and water? Are they hidden from the world, or obvious but not known as Magi? Encourage discretion – the Order does not wish to advertise its presence overly!

    The idea may well change significantly late when it comes to spending points, but a name and rough idea is useful. It gets folk interested, and in the spirit of the game.

    5th edition Covenants - completely different to the second edition book of same name!

    5th edition Covenants - completely different to the second edition book of same name!

    The Order of Hermes

    Now comes the background. The Order of Hermes is a discreet, though not completely hidden magical Order who share a set of magical techniques devised in the 9th century by the wizard Bonisagus, especially a form of magical defence called Parma Magica which allows magi to be defended against each others spells, so allowing them to get on with one another and live in comparative harmony. Parma Magica (the name is Latin for ‘Magical Shield’) is a skill – as it gets higher, your protection gets better. Some magical powers will penetrate it, and ultimately you may well be able to cast spells on each other – but it is some protection against your cranky comrades spells!

    This magical protection is unique to the Order of Hermes, and allowed them to triumph over all the lesser magicians of Mythic Europe, who are called Hedge Magicians, and generally despised as ignorant barbarians. The first characters will start with a Parma Magica score of one, affording little protection, as it was the last thing taught to them as they graduated from their 15 year magical apprenticeship. They will wish to get better quickly, to be better defended against hostile magics. Perhaps when designing the Covenant they might want to include a book in the library on the theory of Parma Magica they can all study from?

    Magi & Other People

    Magi are scary folk. They have something called The Gift, which is the magical nature which lets them learn magic – but that makes them frightening to normal folks and animals who can sense it. As children they may well have been persecuted for their oddness, and even today people do not like them. They get a -3 to all rolls on social interaction with non-magical folk. Therefore they tend to be secluded, and stick to their covenfolk who are used to The Gift, especially the trusted turb which is the term for a group of grogs, a grog being a guard member of the covenfolk trained in weaponry and charged with protecting the magi from mundane threats like bandits and wolves. They also have trusted friends called Consortes, or in English Companions, who often travel with them and help them deal with mundane folks like Churchmen, Innkeepers, Peasants and other riff raff. Companions may come from any social class, from Noble Knights to learned Clergy to a faerie blooded Washerwoman – but for some reason they have befriended and are trusted by the Magi. Now comes the important part – from adventure to adventure, you will play EITHER your companion or your magi – the other character will be at home at the Covenant improving their skills researching in the lab or attending to their business. SO each player has two character, but they won’t both be in play at the same time, and your companion should be friends with one of the OTHER players magi. You will also play a grog, but that is a minor supporting role – don’t worry, you don’t need to think about that yet!

    Now the gift actually comes in three different degrees – the standard Gift, described above, the Blatant Gift –you are overtly magical and terrifying (-6 to mundane social rolls) or for the very blessed the Gentle Gift, where people and animals are not scared of you, as your magical nature manifests kindly or not obviously in any way. As Gentle Gift is a major virtue, it is rare – so Companions are very important.

    Where are we playing?

    There is now another choice for prospective players – where in Mythic Europe should you set your saga. This really comes down to personal choice, but again I would let the players have some say. Explain there are 13 Tribunals, or Regions recognised by the Order – these being

    Rome – Italy & North Africa (with a third edition supplement covering it)
    Rhine – Germany (with the fifth edition supplement Guardians of the Forests covering it)
    Normandy – Northern France (with the fifth edition supplement The Lion and the Lily covering it)
    Provence – Southern France (referenced in second edition supplement Covenants and the third edition supplement Mistridge, but no Tribunal book yet)
    Iberia – Spain and Portugal (with a third edition supplement covering it)
    Transylvania – the Danube Basin and North Balkans (not covered in any book published to date)
    Thebes – Greece and Constantinople (not covered in any book published to date)
    The Levant – the Outremer, or Holy Land (covered in the fourth edition supplement Blood and Sand)
    Novgorod – modern Russia and Poland (covered in the fourth edition supplement The Dragon and the Bear)
    Greater Alps – Switzerland and the Alpine area (covered in the fourth edition supplement Sanctuary of Ice)
    Hibernia – Ireland (not covered in any book published to date)
    Loch Leglean – Scotland (covered in the third edition supplement Lion of the North)
    Stonehenge – England and Wales (covered in the fourth edition supplement Heirs to Merlin)

    Guardians of the Forests - the 5th ed Rhine Tribunal Sourcebook

    Guardians of the Forests - the 5th ed Rhine Tribunal Sourcebook

    The excellent Ars Magica FAQ contains information on all these books. However the 5th edition has reset canon, so you are in no way bound by any of the books, unless you want to be, and arguably even Lion and the Lily and Guardians of the Forest are not canonical – you can design your own Normandy or Rhine Tribunal to taste. It’s your game! Atlas Games may well publish some new tribunal books in the future – check the forthcoming products section of their website for details.

    If you have no strong feeling, I’d say Normandy, Rhine  or Stonehenge was a good choice – it’s pretty much medieval Europe as we tend to think of it. If you are willing to buy a book, Heirs to Merlin by David Chart while not 5th edition tells you a great deal about real medieval life in England and Wales, and has a chapter on the English and Welsh covenants and Hermetic culture, and is like Normandy what many of us think of when we think of ‘medieval’ things. However the Levant, Novgorod, or Thebes may feel more exotic and magical to British or American gamers – it’s your call.

    HINT: Project Redcap has vast amounts of resources on other people’s saga details in which the have detailed covenants, maps etc for many tribunals. Steal shamelessly if you want to! You’ll find Project Redcap at www.redcap.org – it is an invaluable listing of Ars Magica related websites.

    Once you have chosen a setting, you can discuss the possibilities for characters with your players…

    Thinking about your Characters

    The overall aim is to make the players excited about the game, but also to make them feel and realise they will be active participants. Once they have grown to love the system you can suggest they might want to run some adventures themselves, while you play, in the shared setting. However, in many ways it is like a traditional rpg – you will do most of the hard work to start with! Even if you do not fully know the setting or rules yet, don’t panic. The aim is to enthuse, and to remain one step ahead of the players.

    The next thing they will want to do is generate characters – do not expect them yet to read all the rules though. They certainly would benefit from it – unlike say Call of Cthulhu, where the rulebook contains secrets, the ideal is that each player should each buy a copy and read it thoroughly – but that may be to much to ask at this stage. You can however point out that eventually they will want a copy of at least the core rule book each, for ease of reference. However, by the end of your pizza meet you may wish to tell them that Order is defined by its Twelve Houses, of which magi belong to one. A quick keyword intro works – something like

    Bonisagus – magical research, theory and diplomacy
    Tremere – hierarchy and magical duelling
    Merinita – Faerie Magic
    Bjornaer – Animals and Shapechanging
    Flambeau – Fire & Destruction
    Tytalus – Competition and Mastery
    Guernicus – The Police and Lawyers
    Verditius – Masters of making Magic Items
    Mercere – Travel and Communications
    Jerbiton – magi who interact with the Mundane world; art, beauty, scholarship
    Criamon – mystics who study magical riddles
    Ex Miscellanea – Exotic and unusual magi from various small magical traditions.

    Societates: one of the excellent Houses of Hermes line

    Societates: one of the excellent Houses of Hermes line with more detail about the Houses

    (I have by the way noted that I have used plural magi throughout – my apologies. I’m not good with language. )

    Now before you all scream – those are appalling misrepresentations, or crushing stereotypes – it does not matter. Once the players have expressed an interest in one, hand them the book and let them read the relevant part while you eat your by now cold pizza or quaff your warm beer. Once they have read several and selected a House they like, you can suggest they should feel free to create an unusual member of the House if they wish and challenge the stereotype, or play to it. That is down to them…

    Now there are three supplements each of which provide far more information on each House. They are very useful, and you may want your players to read the relevant section once they get in to the game, and are designing their characters, but really it is optional, and you certainly don’t want to do it just now. They are Houses of Hermes: True Lineages (which covers Guernicus, Bonisagus, Tremere and Mercere ) Houses of Hermes: Mystery Cults (which covers Verditius, Merinita, Criamon and Bjornaer) and Houses of Hermes Societates (which covers Jerbiton, Ex Miscellanea, Tytalus and Flambeau). You certainly don’t need these books ot start with – you can run a whole saga off the core rules (as I have!) but they are very nice and can be picked up later when your players want to gte more involved in their Houses if you so wish. Your players may well buy the book if they enjoy your game?

    The usual urge is now to give them character sheets and let them start designing. Resist it. Talk more about the game, and let them make up a little story, and maybe make some notes about their characters. I find a single side of A4 in which they let their imaginations run wild for the mage and for the companion helps – when it comes to character generation you then have a framework, and rather than being overwhelmed by options, the issue becomes fitting the stats, abilities and Virtues and Flaws to their character idea. Schedule a time to meet with each player to run through the magic rules and character generation on their own, or at best two at a time. You will thank me, and if you have already got an idea of what they want to play you will be able to advise them on useful and interesting, yet relevant, Virtues and Flaws…

    With only one book, or even with several, character generation can become frustrating if too many folks need your advice at once  It is MUCH better to design characters one on one, with plenty of time.  For later magi the players will have the advantage of having read, digested and understood the rules. However the trick here is to as previously remarked enthuse the players with the idea of the game, making them share the ‘ownership’ of the saga.  In the next section I will explain what key concepts I would introduce before character generation – (spells and the magic system); but there is perhaps scope at this time or drawing up companions, and allowing the players a chance to familiarise themselves with the stats, the abilities, and the breadth of possibilities. Though I would never suggest it to an experienced player, I might even suggest virtues and flaws could be chosen later, when you generate the magi. Although some will change the numbers on the page, the alterations in math are usually straightforward to reverse engineer. However, it is really unfair and a bad choice to let the players design the magi or covenant before you have fully explained and allowed them to explore the Magic chapter…

    Assisting with Character Generation

    OK, first piece of advice. Read the rules yourself carefully first.  Some rpg’s are forgiving – you can do character generation with a player, reading the rules as you go. I do not find this the case for Ars Magica! Your players may not have any idea of how character generation works, but you should have a pretty good idea yourself. However before you or your players start designing Magi, it is vitally important you have read the chapters on Hermetic Magic, Spells (or at least the introduction no need o memorise every spell yet, or indeed ever!) and really Laboratory. You may also wish to familiarise yourself well with the Laboratory rules, and the rules on Aging and Warping. You should make sure you have made at least a couple of grogs, a companion and a magi or two yourself. They will come in handy as NPC’s in your later sessions after all, and trying it out will really make sure YOU understand the character generation rules. Failure to do this may well result in a miserable time as you struggle to help others!

    Houses of Hermes: Mystery Cults

    Houses of Hermes: Mystery Cults - covers Bjornaer, Merinta, Verditius and Criamon

    However, before you start trying to guide players through character generation at least you should understand the following quick checklist – work through it, looking things up…

    *the techniques and forms, and what they do
    *how to cast a formulaic spell
    *how to cast a spontaneous spell
    *quiet casting and shouting and waving etc – gestures and voice
    *how to create a casting total how the dice work!, and how to work out penetration.
    *the significance and importance of spell mastery, and why it is a good thing
    *the idea of vis, and how important it is
    *ritual spells, and when they are required
    *how to work out a lab total (assume aura 3 usually for character generation I find)
    *at what age aging cuts in
    *what the stats do, and how to create them
    * the importance of the abilities penetration, finesse, parma magica (see above), concentration, artes liberals, philosophiae, magic theory and Latin at least 3 or 4 for magi characters. Check the sections on learning from books by studying, writing books, and setting up your lab to see why some of these are important.
    *understand how range/duration and target work, and how to calculate spell magnitude and thus level (once you know this you can design spells!)
    *understand target bases for each form, and how to improve them.
    *noted how Size effects characters both in magic that can effect them and wounds.
    *understood the encumbrance rules
    *be able to briefly explain the concept of Warping and Twilight if asked
    * be ready to explain the Code of Hermes
    *understand the pyramid points used in Arts, and the xp used in abilities and how they differ
    *understand Virtues & Flaws, their effects, and most importantly the limits on how many of any given type you can take

    There are a few easy to miss things in there with serious ramifications, so I hope the list is useful. It may look daunting, but it will save time in the long run.

    Next up, generate two or three grogs. You can compare them with the ones on the Atlas website to see if they look about right. Keep them – they will come in handy later! You will make mistakes. Do not worry. Just keep learning. If you have questions, ask the Berklist or Atlas forum.

    Next up, design three or four very different companions. Keep them, and repeat above process. By this time you should have a notepad and pen handy at all times – some neat ideas, rules précis, and useful advice will come to you as you create these characters. Later in your saga these characters will feature as NPCs – but for now they are a learning exercise!

    Now make your first mage or maga (a female mage). If you have enough time I’d recommend creating one from each house, to get used to them, and because then you will have them for use in your sag as NPC’s. Some you will later age using the Older Magi rules, which will give you a chance to try out the lab rules in the privacy of your own home, so to speak. Use the Template characters at first if you like – they are there to help you. However, if your players are going to work from the ground up, so should you. This is going to take a long time, but the experience will really pay off in letting you get a hang of how the rules work. Furthermore, it really will provide you with a fantastic ready made stock of magi to people your saga.

    Art & Academe - medieval science, arts, education and medicine explained!

    Art & Academe - medieval science, arts, education and medicine explained

    I could provide lots of (probably bad) advice on spell selection (I advise starting with the listed spells, and then modifying a few effects to see how that would change the range/duration/target and thus the level of the spell. (And then maybe later creating a few unique spells using the guidelines for later characters.) You will soon note the trade off between Abilities and Arts, and by now you well versed in Childhoods, Pre-Apprenticeship, Apprenticeship and Companion and Grog points totals. Note things like Skilled Parens – players tend to like that virtue, and how various Virtues and Flaws effect different characters. The Ars character generation system is a beautiful thing, but you will have to come to love it, and it is a difficult beast to tame. Once you have the knack you will be pleased with it though, much like the magic system!

    Magi Design Ideas

    There are two main design philosophies – the Generalist, with their points scattered over all Techniques and Forms, able to spontaneously make up low level spells easily in almost any circumstance, and able to cast a wide variety of simple  spells – or the Specialist, who concentrates their points in 3 or 4 or in extreme cases only two arts, such as the Flambeau who takes Creo (Creating) and Ignem (Fire) high, so they can cast dangerous fire magics from the beginning, boosting their arts with relevant virtues. Note the suggested limits in Arts for newly gauntleted magi, and make sure you put some points in secondary arts no matter how much you specialise. A positive Vim and Corpus score can often be helpful, and while techniques are used more, there only being five of them, remember that you can add the form total to Parma Magica and gain other bonuses (such as soak, which resists damage) from it.

    It is my experience that when it comes to helping players with character design, you will be embarrassed by riches, or to put it another way, the players will be totally confused by the options available, as there are so many and they are so diverse. So first, introduce the stats and abilities, and generate a grog with them. They will need one, and can have fun browsing the Virtues and Flaws ( I like to photocopy them, cut them out, and hand them to players to sort through to speed things up, with a little table of how many of each type of Virtue or Flaw they must or can not take).

    Now you must make sure that dice, stat plus skill versus target number (ease factor), and all this sort of thing is understood!

    Next create their companions – if you followed my advice, and have had them sketch out whether a whole side or two about their character, or at least a rough outline, now you can really help, by pointing out relevant abilities, and Virtues and Flaws, and then they merely have to pick a few more which round out the character. Help them as much as you can, by advising, but not by dictating.

    And once the Companion is ready, then it I time to start to their first Magi. You already know a little about what they want to play – but now you need to very quickly (!!!) explain the magic system, and show them the list spells, with an emphasis o the kind of character they wish to create. If you have got them to buy their own rule book, which in a perfect worlds they have, they may be ahead of you, and all you need do is check the maths. Unfortunately it is far more likely you are going to have to in a very simple way explain all the things on the checklist above – but while character generation is occurring, explaining the relevance of each rule and how it effects the design. This is why you must understand the rules so well- you want the player to make intelligent choices, yet not be bored rigid!

    Stress the narrative options, the personality, the characters role in the Order, their history, childhood, and what they look and sound like. Don’t make players feel stupid if they struggle with the rules. If they are really floundering, step in and guide them. Explain they can make small changes once they have had a chance to properly read the book! Do not penalise the players for not having read two hundred pages of densely written rules. Instead let them read the sections on Hermetic life, the Code, and other fun stuff. A feeling for the setting and imagination are much better than a ruthlessly minimaxed powergamers character. Those who like that sort of thing will learn the rules and design it – those who don’t will just want to enjoy creating a unique and special character! Templates are an excellent way to start, but many experienced role players unwisely resist them, wanting to experience character generation in all its complex glory.

    PLAN B: The Quick and Dirty Method

    The above works fine, if you live in an Ideal World like me. For those who have the misfortune to exist outside the realm of Platonic Forms, (I’m the ideal of disreputable ghosthunter) here is Plan B.  (If you don’t like it, Plan C will follow). Let us assume that your players have at best only one gaming night a week if that, and like to play games, rather than spend ages on theory and designing characters. Let us assume they are working, and can afford to buy many games, which vie for their attention. Let us also assume that much as you like the idea this week, next week you will buy Advanced Weasels and Wombats, plus the Ferret Trouser supplement. You want to get a hang of the game, and see if you want to commit to it, without spending several hours in doing stuff. You are willing to read the rules, or at least the vital ones, and make a handful of characters. OK, let’s see what we can do.

    Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his merry men...

    Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his merry men...

    First, run a single session fast and dirty game. We will set it in the late twelfth century in England,, with a group of magi and maybe companions (but better all magi – players love to cast spells and it showcases the system better) travelling to visit the Covenant of Voluntas on the North Yorkshire Moors of England. There is a description of it in the Ars Magica 4th introductory story, or in Heirs to Merlin, not that it matters because the adventure is set on the journey, not when you arrive, so you will never need to detail it. This is a one off idea- the trick is to let the characters use magic to hurt some benighted mundanes and let them have a few cheap successes, while learning a bit about the game –and hopefully give them a feel for it.

    Use the characters from the sample covenant on the Atlas website. Read what the virtues and flaws mean, and type the spell descriptions for each magi, or a précis and page number, on a sheet of paper you hand out with the spells. Give them a mage or companion each. Explain how to roll the dice, how formulaic spells work and sponts. Also give the players a grog each to play.

    Run spontaneous magic by ear, and by what seems right. Do any calculations as they arise quickly, or make it up to keep the game moving, basing it on the rough power of similar level spells. In short, cheat…

    The adventure opens as the characters travel through Sherwood Forest, near Nottingham. They are attacked by Bandits – well Outlaws really. The Outlaws you will need to generate – one Robin Hood, a Friar Tuck, Maid Marion, Will Scarlet, all four designed by you using the rules for creating companions. Create a single Grog level outlaw, and have as many unnamed outlaws as grogs by simply using those stats for each..

    Let Robin and his Merry Men talk to the characters, in the spirit of robbing the rich to give to the poor. Roleplay to the hilt. Maybe there is a challenge, or some contests like drinking (carouse) a quarterstaff battle on a log over a stream, a hunt for the King’s deer, or whatever. Maybe the magi just toast Robin et al with magic. Have Robin and Marion escape death if possible, but so long as folks are having fun… Quite probably the Magi befriend the Outlaws, perhaps by creating some silver with a Creo Terram, or just by being sociable. Perhaps the Outlaws are scared by their Gift. The Outlaws are actually jolly nice chaps…

    Next morning, and the characters continue on their way – to meet the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham. He is quite a prominent chap, and interfering with mundanes is banned, but… Design a grog as a soldier, and use his stats for the Sheriffs six companions. The Sheriff is another companion. Or adapt stats from the rule book or the Atlas site. The Sheriff does his moustache twiddling villain bit, unless the Magi can tell him they wiped out Robin Hood et al, in which case he invites them back to the Castle at Nottingham for a feast in their honour, and political intrigue carousing and dangerous explanations of who they are and their purposes here (cunning lies follow no doubt!) .

    Next day, or later that day, or as plot required – if the players befriended the outlaws, Maid Marion catches up on a (stolen) horse. Robin has been captured and is to be hanged in Nottingham Market in the morning. She pleads with the Magi to help her rescue him.

    If they befriended the Sheriff, he asks in the morning they do him a favour – a minstrel called Blondel has pillaged the Castle, and is escaping with a cart load of gold and silver. If they can  find and kill him, the Sheriff and his lord the Regent Prince John will reward them with their choice of treasures from the wagon. However Blondel is said to have magic powers when he speaks or sings – he must be killed outright, before he can open his mouth. (In fact Blondel is collecting the ransom for Good King Richard currently languishing as a captive in the dungeons of a castle in Austria, where he has found him held captive). The theft story is a complete lie – Prince John and the Sheriff have given towards the ransom, but want King Richard to die there so John gets the throne…)

    If they befriended neither the Outlaws or Sheriff, have them attacked by a pack of wolves, and then reach Voluntas. So long as there are plenty of opportunities to use magic and have fun they will be happy players.

    And then, while congratulating them on how well they did, (even if in reality there were awful) start talking about your saga, and what they want there magi to be like, and revert to plan A…

    NOTE: this is a very simple one off idea, which does not really showcase much of the game at all. However designing Robin Hood and friends will give you invaluable experience in how character generation works, and the game should allow for a few combats, lots of use of skills, and some magic casting. It is a rather playful take on the famous legend, just designed so you can see if the rules interest you. However, the rules of Ars Magica are NOT the fun part of the game… they are in some ways a hindrance, till you learn them. Don’t let them get in the way of having fun. I’ll stat all the characters. Also my adventure idea really sucks – it is really meant as an illustration, and is in now way typical of Ars Magica. If it was I would not play the game !

    PLAN C- Chaos and Anarchy

    What if my original suggestions are too time consuming, and the players hate the idea of playing pre-generated characters? Instead they all want to gather in a big huddle at your house and create their characters, then start playing because that’s how they do rpg? Well, if you have to, my emergency tips for this eventuality. I really do NOT recommend it though, ever, even with experienced players… however, if needs must…

    1. Photocopy and blow up or write out on big sheets of paper the experience point scales for costs for Arts and Abilities. Make sure everyone can see it. You can get away with explaining how to create stats, but they will need this in front of them.

    2. Have a handy list drawn up and prominently displayed of all Abilities in the game, and a few words explanation of what Chirurgery or Carouse actually means.

    3. Write the Arts on another piece of paper, with a simple explanation of what each one means – for example CREO = create stuff, IGNEM = fire. Stick it to the wall. You don’t have to be a genius to work out then taht to cast a fireball you use Creo Ignem added together.

    4. The clever bit. Make up a deck of cards, by creating suitable tables of card size in your word processor. Type the virtues and flaws, or a summary of each, on to the cards – about 4 copies of each. Colour code them by type – ie. personality Flaws = blue, Story Flaws = green, hermetic Flaws = red. Mark clearly if they are major or minor flaws or virtues. Then add another chart, showing incompatible types – so say ONLY ONE MAJOR PERSONALITY FLAW MAY BE TAKEN, ONLY ONE MAJOR HERMETIC VIRTUE, etc. Drop the cards on the table and let your players shuffle through them and read them ,and take them, and make a little pile or row, till they have chosen and can write them in their bestest handwriting on their character sheet. Invaluable if there is only one copy of the book between many players… but in future, buy more rulebooks !

    5. Draw up a word processor document with two tables on it; each table is six rows deep, with the techniques listed, by eleven columns wide, for the ten forms Then once points are allocated to Arts, write in spell casting totals (tec +form +stamina) on one table, and just add aura, voice/gesture and die roll when you need to. The other table has tech +form =INT + 3 (AURA + magic Theory – this total represents the highest level spell the character can learn in that combination in character generation, and is ignored thereafter, so you can rip it off an discard it once they have finished making the characters. Save time though…

    6. While one maga player is choosing her spells, have the other make grogs or companions, so they are not waiting for the book.

    7. Ensure you have a ready supply of two aspirin, one dose of valium/diazepam, or a bottle of Scotch, (choose one, not all three!), and have written your Last Will and Testament and acquired a sword to fall upon in case the frustration, chaos and confusion proves too much for you as poor harassed Storyguide to bear. Alternatively, bring a deck of cards and be ready to suggest Strip Snap as alternative entertainment.

    Ars logo

    I will now leave Character Generation and Recruitment. One last word – it is often easier to convert non-roleplaying friends and relatives than find other role players if you do not already have a group, yet this possibility is often overlooked. My female friends in particular seem to enjoy Ars Magica – well some of them!

    None of this is remotely official, or in any way affiliated with Atlas Games. It’s just my thoughts.  “Ars Magical” and the “Ars Magica” logo and artworks featured are trademarks of Trident, Inc. d/b/a Atlas Games.

    Heroquest 2.0 – the first mini-review?

    Posted in Games by Chris Jensen Romer on July 1, 2009

    It’s just gone one here, one hour since Heroquest 2.0 officially became available! And here are my very first thoughts, pending a proper review later in the week, to be posted on rpg.net. I cheated, Jeff Richards gave me a copy of the pdf on Friday so I could get cracking on the review, and even with the weekend from hell behind me I have now had a chance to make a very brief first foray – full review to follow soon…

    What is an rpg?

    For those who don’t know what Heroquest is, it’s a tabletop (pen and pencil, NOT computer) roleplaying game (rpg) that you play with your friends. All but one player has a character, and sitting round a table the players participate in exciting adventures . Another player who has prepared that night’s story plot is the referee, and plays all the people the players  interact with, setting puzzles and challenges for them to overcome.  You use dice to handle random luck, see if your character  succeeds or fails  at certain tasks, and try and think up cunning plans to get the treasure/capture the enemy ship/save the colony on mars/seduce the handsome prince/pull off the stockmarket fraud of the century/beat the Nazis etc. etc. Stories that can be told are only limited by the riules, and the players and referees imagination. Yes, like Dungeons and Dragons, but arguably less geeky, more cool…

    What stories can you tell with this game?

    Pretty much any you can imagine, in ANY setting. This is the second edition of Heroquest, which in turn was based on an earlier game Hero Wars. both those games were set specifically in one fantasy setting – Greg  Stafford’s evocative world, Glorantha. This new edition of the rules does contain a small section on playing Heroquest 2.0 (henceforth HQ) in Glorantha, which covers basics of magic etc, but these rules are truly multi-genre – and without much real immediate obvious need for setting packs.  You can run almost any story you can imagine with them – because they abstract the technology and vehicles etc in terms of their role in your story, NOT a simulationist attempt to define how they would work in reality.  If you want starship construction rules, stats for a hundred different guns, and a detailed approach to armour and movement and maneuver rules, this is NOT the game for you. Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying might be a better bet, or GURPS? Heroquest 1.0 might work well for you.

    Heroquest 2.0 is unashamedly a game about stories and characters, where the genre defines the way the game runs — and the styles that can be supported range from satire to cinematic to gritty realism or even tragic operetta. Yes I mean that – so long as your central aim is to tell stories and explore characters, not to simulate an alternative reality physics etc. The examples which are well written and highly evocative range through dozens of settings and gave me some good ideas!

    So what’s changed?

    Everything and nothing. If you don’t know Heroquest 1.0, skip this bit! The game is still identifiably Heroquest, and everything I loved about the original is there. Yet also it’s completely different – a change in approach comparable in the difference between D&D 3rd edition and D&D 4th edition, but in the opposite direction – from bean counting and tactical play, towards narrative storytelling.  Yet there are still a LOT of rules, they are still number heavy, but much simplified over HQ1.0, and augments which were a problem for me in Heroquest 1.0 have been totally reworked, and are now mainly about doing something new and interesting, not “add the +3 for sword skill, the +2 for Humakti, the +1 for hate Lunars, the +3 from my deathly glare and the +2 for my bunions of death, that’s +11 every turn”.  One major change is augmenting is now usually with one ability, and you roll for it (or in some campaigns the GM can use the optional static augment – but then it’s now a 5th of your skill.) The need to think up something new to do each time you augment to justify it appeals to me, but some GM’s may wish to ignore it I guess.

    Extended contests and the consequences thereof have changed radically – and I explain how in my full review to follow soon. Basically there are two types of Extended Contest — ones that take place during the main part of the story, which are less likely to mangle your character, and the final climax, where death or injury are far more likely. Gambling for points bid is gone – replaced with a neat “first to 5 victory points” mechanic, which is going to have to wait till the morning. If you wanted you could of course still use Heroquest 1.0’s mechanic easily enough. There is loads of good advice on running contests, examples throughout, and modifiers now give a +3, +6, or +9. There are no fiddly +1 or -2 type modifiers, every modifier if worth putting in is boldly drawn. And the old weapons and armour pluses are gone too – characters are assumed to just have them as part of their abilities, and creating your own abilities is as before a big part of the game, but in non-Gloranthan settings even bigger than before. There are rules for creating communities, including for designing clan history style background questionnaires to let players have input through their choices in to designing the communities past ( like the one in Barbarian Adventures )- but now you can create your own for any setting. The community chapter also includes resource management rules, with variable scales, and where player character actions are important over and above random rolls.

    The really dramatic bit

    Every so often I read an idea that makes me rethink the way I think about roleplaying games. This was one of those occasions. In most rpg’s the characters face certain resistances, defined by the setting. Dragoons are terrible, mighty foes, Klingon ships are dangerous adversaries, goblins are spiteful but puny, the Nazi’s vicious but dumb, the system you are trying to hack homicidally loaded with dangerous software to prevent an easy success. These numbers are dictated by the rules, the referees world vision, or even how experienced the characters are – “don’t go in to the third level of the dungeon unless you are third level!” None of this applies here.

    Here, the difficulty of an encounter varies by it’s place in the story, and how well the characters are doing. If they are constantly failing, the challenges get easier and easier till they succeed. If they keep succeeding, they builder up in difficulty throughout the session, and either way always culminate in a dangerous a nail-biting climax!  That’s right, the difficulty of the challenges vary with how the characters are doing. A typical story will include both many successes and a few failures, which the characters will have to find ways round.  When I first read this I was truly appalled – it seemed like the referee was just making the game up as they went along, and there was no way to be clever and “win” through good tactics – all story, but less game.

    And then I saw – the Narrator (referee) can retrospectively create challenges based upon the next difficulty level, and is encouraged to change the difficulties to maintain genre and game world conventions – it does not matter how many times the characters failed climbing up the lonely Mountain, if they poke Smaug on the nose with a stick they are in BIG trouble, and probably toast.  Yet the Pass/Fail cycle really does seem to offer an exciting way to pace your narratives – letting the players succeed in defeating a minor obstacle before encountering Smaug may restore fun when the whole story seems to be falling apart through little more than bad dice rolls.

    And if you hate it, well you can run Heroquest the “standard” rpg way, assigning all difficulties long in advance.

    In conclusion

    I have barely touched on the joy that is HQ2.0, but I need sleep and it’s nearly 3am, and I have to be up in the morning. Suffice to say that I love the game, perhaps the most exciting new rpg I have ever seen. Revolutionary, elegant, beautifully written, my full review (already 4,000 words long) will be offered ot rpg.net later this week. If you’d like to check out Heroquest 2.0. it’s available now as a pdf and book from

    www.glorantha.com – and there is an excellent free preview which will show you much more about the game on that site, at the bottom of the Heroquest page!

    From me, it’s good night!

    cj x

    Great News – and a missed opportunity.

    Posted in Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life by Chris Jensen Romer on March 4, 2009

    My friends Andrew and Mel are having twins! Many many congratulations! I have always been fond of twins (Martin Peters and Hugh will get the joke at least…)

    Excellent, wonderful news, though I was dreadfully troubled, nay mortified, by the tragic news on Andrew’s LiveJournal that a relative threw out some 2nd ed and 3rd ed Ars Magica books that were in their attic during the clear out.

    Well a bit anyway! :)

    Not just because obviously this is a terrible sacrilege (and deepy painful to report, though insignificant  in terms of the joyous twin news!), but because I am fairly sure there was a copy of The Maleficium (I have been trying to get a secondhand copy from ebay  for eight years now, which might give you some idea of its second hand value) and a number of other books I have not seen for a while in there, and mainly because I know what they were worth. Bugger, we could have sold them on ebay and – well I think I’d better not say what they would have fetched if sold, lest I weep! :(

    Oh well – the books were lost anyway, but it is a real shame that they were not subject to a MuTe (with a He requisite) to create hot gold for the infants, and pay towards the costs of the unexpected joyful arrivals!. :(

    In case you were wondering Ars Magica is the roleplaying game of life as a 13th century wizard. (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-Magic-Ars-Magica/dp/1589780701/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1236131959&sr=8-2) I have written for a couple of books for the 5th edition of the line, and organised Grand Tribunal 2007 and 2008. And yes I know I have gone on about roleplaying books and said nothing about the twins – I don’t know anymore, that is why,  but best of luck to the proud parents to be! :)

    And if anyone out there has any unwanted second hand Ars Magica books, and in particular a copy of The Maleficium… do think of me, and have pity!

    cj x


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