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The Case For $0.01/word Being Bullshit
The wheel of discourse turns and ages come and pass and inevitably we circle back to "actually it’s fine to pay people shit wages because otherwise you’re gatekeeping who gets to make art". It’s bullshit and I hate it.
This particular round of discourse was prompted by a publisher with a track record of low-five-figure Kickstarters putting out a call for submissions for work. They would pay $0.01/word in exchange for owning all the rights to the work in perpetuity, with no royalties or other residuals paid to the writers creating the words which they intend to profit from. This is disgusting.
$0.01 per word – a cent per word, or 74% of a single penny in pounds sterling, which is the currency I pay my bills in – is a fucking insult. If you want to hire people to make products for you that you then sell for a profit, you need to be paying more than this.
To demonstrate just how bullshit this wage is, I decided to go back through all of my solo projects to date. I started publishing on the DMs Guild back in September 2016. I had no audience whatsoever, nobody knew who I was, I released products under a Pay What You Want model, and I’m still positive that I’ve rarely earned less than $0.01/word. And if a solo creator can earn that on their own with no "help" from a publisher, then what is the publisher bringing to the table?
I’m going to try and give "$0.01/word, no residuals, pay on publication" as much of a head start as possible here. I’m going to look at my products and figure out what they earned in their first 30 days of being on sale, and I’m going to compare that to $0.01/word. But I’ll also look at how much they’ve earned over their lifetime, as an example of how offering royalties can mitigate an inability to pay a fair wage when the work is first commissioned.
I won’t be looking at my freelance work in detail here but I’ve never been paid $0.01/word and these days I try not to work for less than £0.10/word (which is $0.14). I’m now in a position to be quite choosy about the work I accept, though, because I’ve managed to find myself in a position where my solo ventures pay more than most freelance work and therefore it’s not really worth my time to write for other people. I am very privileged in this regard, but it’s entirely the result of hard work and consistency.
Freelance work in brief, from memory:
- $0.03/word, Onyx Path Publishing, Yugman’s Guide To Ghelspad.
- $0.08/word, Hunter’s Entertainment, Gods Of Metal: Ragnarock.
- $0.10/word, Gauntlet Publishing, Fudge, Jury, and Executioner and Bed, Breakfast, and Beyond. Paid on submission, they were a joy to work for, and if the work is included in crowdfunding (e.g. in a Kickstarted edition of Brindlewood Bay) they pay an additional $0.05/word bringing the total yo $0.15/word. Would happily write for them again.
- $0.25/word, MCDM Arcadia, Filthy Peasants. The best freelance experience of my career. 10/10 would write for again.
- £0.40/word, Ockult Örtmästare Games, location for CY_BORG. Good people, fun work, great pay, more please.
I’m also currently contracted for three things that I can’t talk about yet at rates of $0.08, $0.07, and £0.12. The first two are lower than I’d usually accept but they’re both opportunities I’m excited about and therefore I’m willing to take a lower rate.
So much for "I won’t go into my freelance work in detail" I guess? I’ve actually deleted some of what I wrote in my first draft because I simply don’t want any drama resulting from things I write in this post, but the fact that we can’t be transparent about freelance experiences for fear of reprisals is another conversation for another day.
Anyway. On to my solo ventures. Incoming table.
A brief key:
- "Sales 30" = total money made by me in the first 30 days.
- "Sales LT" = total money made by me over the life of the product to date.
- "$/w 30" = $ per word in the first 30 days of publication.
- "$/w LT" = $ per word over the lifetime of the product.
- "PWYW" = a product sold under a Pay What You Want model with no minimum price. If there’s a minimum price I list that as the sale price. If there’s an asterisk next to PWYW it means that it was released as PWYW but in the intervening years I put an actual price tag on it.
For full transparency it should be noted that I do all my own writing and layout and that I’m not factoring being paid for those things into these calculations, but I’m also not factoring how much I pay for editing either. I think they roughly even each other out and it’s simply too much effort for me to break it down in more granular detail than this.
Projects that aren’t yet complete or fully released – i.e. Dice Souls, d36, Down In Yongardy, In The Bluelight – aren’t listed because I don’t know what the final word counts etc. are going to be on them.
These figures both do and do not include print products. They’re partially included in projects that were funded on Kickstarter because I’ve just taken the total amount that hit my bank and added that to digital sales, but I haven’t included later print sales. That isn’t due to not wanting to be transparent; it’s entirely down to me not having the energy to collate that information on top of the digital stuff I’ve already gone through.
With that said, print is a significant portion of my business both in terms of direct sales to customers and in selling to retailers. The per-word numbers for products that exist in print that I give below are lower than the reality as a result of not including print. It’s not hugely important, though, as the numbers that I’m presenting here more than make my point for me already.
I’m also not including products on the DMs Guild where I was part of a collaboration, mainly to save myself time and effort here but also because they’re not just my sales figures and it doesn’t feel right to share that information about other people without their permission. Similarly I’m not including Patreon figures either – partly again due to the effort involved, and partly in an attempt to give $0.01/word a fighting chance.
Some numbers may seem weird (i.e. don’t divide evenly by the sale price) – that’s because platforms and payment processors take a cut, and I’m listing the amounts that actually hit my bank account.
|Product||Launch Date||Word Count||Sale Price||Sales 30||Sales LT||$/w 30||$/w LT||Notes|
|100 New Trinkets||26/09/2016||2700||PWYW*||$30.02||$492.26||$0.011||$0.18|
|The Wheelhouse Prison||30/9/2016||8430||PWYW||$64.22||$333.33||$0.007||$0.039|
|Bulette Storm||4/7/2017||14,466||Free||–||$473.63||–||$0.032||Eventually became PWYW. Has been downloaded 28,880 times and contains adverts linking to my other products and my Patreon.|
|Breaker Of Chains||24/9/2017||5722||$4.99||$94.40||$1143.88||$0.016||$0.19|
|Trick Or Trinkets||29/10/2017||2427||$1.99||$34.19||$160.96||$0.014||$0.06|
|Cities: Shadepoint||7/2/2018||11,894||PWYW||$124.51||$192.06||$0.01||$0.016||Simultaneous release on Itch and DTRPG. Was my first Itch release.|
|Terror At Tightwillow Pond||6/3/2018||2073||£1||£1.54||£13.93||£0.00007||£0.006|
|Trinkets 3||3/12/2018||2000||$1.99||$8.50||$100.00||$0.004||$0.05||Written live on Twitter while waiting for a train back from Dragonmeet. Took most of a year off writing/publishing due to some personal issues and this was reflected in my sales numbers when it was initially released.|
|At The Ace Hotel||30/1/2020||1068||PWYW||$66.78||$95.41||$0.06||$0.089|
|Exit, Pursued by a Bear||14/4/2020||644||£5.00||£32.34||£41.99||£0.05||£0.065|
|The Wretched||19/4/2020||3579||£12||£996.77||£20,574.28||£0.28||£5.74||Original print run was just 25 copies. Very successful Kickstarter later in the year for a second printing. Covered by Shut Up & Sit Down and selected as one of Tabletop Gaming Magazine’s Best Games of 2020.|
|Under The Floorboards||26/06/2020||18,334||£12.50||£3154.35||£3891.15||£0.17||£0.21|
|Chicken & Chips||25/7/2020||1807||£5.00||£67.31||£85.97||£0.037||£0.047||First Patreon release after relaunching.|
|The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches||6/9/2020||7266||£6.66||£39.05||£236.31||£0.005||£0.04||Given away free during The Wretched Kickstarter to encourage people to back the campaign.|
|Dreams Of Psilocybin||15/9/2020||1210||PWYW||£2.55||£6.89||£0.002||£0.005||Has only ever sold 2 copies|
|A Dragon Game||8/3/2021||1258||PWYW||$1565.36||$1793.13||$1.00||$1.42||Massive spike in sales driven by coverage in Dicebreaker.|
|Treasures Of The Troll King||4/6/2021||4195||£13||£21.658.85||£22,048.16||£5.16||£5.25||Very successful Kickstarter. Number here has not had production costs subtracted from it but it continues to sell well in print post-campaign and those sales are also not reflected here.|
|Dungeon: A Wanderhome Nature||18/6/2021||98||PWYW||£27.29||£32.10||£0.27||£0.32|
|The Green Hag Of Greygasp||6/6/2021||6731||£5||£40.40||£75.71||£0.006||£0.01|
|The Fiction We Live||1/10/2021||3322||£6||£37.33||£48.84||£0.01||£0.014|
|People Of The Law||18/11/2021||597||£4.50||£13.50||£17.39||£0.02||£0.029||Released as a loss leader during the Down In Yongardy kickstarter and given away free through the campaign in order to drive new backers|
|Reivdene-Upon-The-Moss||1/12/2021||22,558||£0.50 – £12||£835.18||£869.38||£0.037||£0.038||Released daily during December with the price increasing £0.50 every day.|
|One Endless Night||15/12/2021||3718||£5.00||£43.07||£52.84||£0.01||£0.014|
|Best Left Jellied||11/1/2022||1368||£1.50||£4.80||£4.80||£0.003||£0.003|
Since beginning my career in 2016 I’ve published over 160k words, not including freelance writing, blog posts, fiction, and the few projects not listed here. In my first year of publishing I averaged a word rate of around $0.15/word. Over my career as a whole that average rate is closer to $0.50/word (this is hard to work out exactly because I have a mix of dollar and pound rates here and I haven’t accounted for print so I’ve rounded down; the actual average will be higher than this).
You are of course free to make your own conclusions and take what you want from this data, but here’s my takeaway:
It takes a dose of luck to be able to make a full time living at games writing – I wouldn’t be where I am now if The Wretched hadn’t taken off in the way it did and if Treasures Of The Troll King hadn’t also done phenomenally well – but you can increase your chances of being in the right place at the right time with the right product by being consistent and persistent, putting out small projects within the scope of your abilities regularly, and constantly working to be better at what you do.
On top of this, I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to have a large back catalogue that gives you a constant drip of income. Every product you release contributes to that, each time I release something new I see a spike in sales on old products, and it means that it becomes less and less important whether an individual release does well initially. I can afford to take a risk on something like Whalesong that’s effectively a commercial failure because my back list is strong.
At no point in my career would it have been beneficial to me to work for $0.01/word writing for somebody else, even though I have a handful of products that earned less. Even when I was starvation-level poor. I own those things, they will continue to earn money even if it’s small, and they contribute to a body of work that I’m proud to have produced.
One cent per word is exploitative bullshit when it’s offered by an American publisher raising 5 figures on Kickstarter regularly, even if you’re right at the start of your career with no track record. Don’t let them convince you they’re "taking a chance on you" when you could take a chance on yourself and be just as successful.
This is a long post. It clocks in at 2134 words. If I wanted to be paid for this then the best way to do that would be to link to my Ko-Fi and to tell you that it only takes 8 readers donating £3 each to get me above £0.01 per word, which is more than 1 cent per word. That’s how easy it is to make that money.
This was originally posted to Detritus. Something I didn’t mention in this post originally but am adding in now because I’ve just thought about it, is that I have done exactly zero additional work to get this post ready to go on the blog. The text below was copy and pasted directly from the markdown document into a markdown block on my WordPress post editor. All I’ve done is make a graphic to go at the top of the post. What you’re reading on this site came from the same source file as the PDF that I link at the end of the post.
I’ve been talking a lot recently about different versions of accessibility in the products we release. I wanted to take a few minutes to write something up about my workflow, why I’m doing what I’m doing, and the things I’ve learned along the way. I also want to acknowledge the potential drawbacks of this process and look at some things that I’d like to explore or figure out in the future.
None of this is "my" work. I’m building on things I’ve learned from friends, from endless Googling to figure stuff out, and from best guesses about how things might work. This also isn’t a tutorial of any kind. I’m not a teacher, I haven’t taken good notes while I’ve been learning this stuff, I’m just sharing some thoughts and my own ways of doing things. I don’t care if you use this yourself or not and I’m not making any judgements either way.
I’ve been helped massively along the way by Yubi, Luke Gearing, and Michael T. Lombardi. Yubi first opened my eyes to the sorry state of accessibility in TTRPGs and helped me make sure that d36 was as accessible as we knew how to make it be at the time. Luke’s post about using markdown and Pandoc to make documents got me started working in markdown, and both Luke and Michael have helped me when I’ve had questions or needed to try and talk something through or figure things out. I also recently discovered The Annotated Archive of Game Design Resources and in particular their Accessibility section, which is a fantastic resource I’ll be digging in to more over the next few weeks.
Yubi also spent a lot of time with me and a few others in my Gather this week running things through screenreaders for us and generally showing us how the PDFs etc. that Pandoc (and a few methods that Matt Sanders is working on in this direction) are falling down. I had already written this and posted it to Detritus but I’ve updated this public-facing post to reflect what we learned. I stand by this method as a means of producing multiple formats quickly and easily, but there’s still work to be done in making them as accessible as we’d like them to be.
Right now my workflow doesn’t look much different to the one laid out in Luke’s post. I draft in Ghostwriter using markdown (which is where I’m writing this post) and I output using Pandoc to HTML, epub, and plain text PDF. A few people have asked why I output in HTML, and the answer is so that I can do things like this.
I also use a script to import markdown to InDesign for when I do my print layouts. This applies styles in InDesign based on the styling in my markdown document and makes life very, very simple for me. You can see my whole process from start to finish here.
There were a couple of things that bugged me about the base output from Pandoc that I spent some time trying to fix, so let’s cover them quickly.
I wanted to change the fonts in my PDF, because of course I did. This isn’t supported in basic markdown but you can do it with LaTeX, and you can mix some simple LaTeX commands into your markdown without any issues. You’ll need to tell Pandoc which PDF engine to use in order for this to work, and your choice of fonts is limited, but there is some customisation available here without using external style sheets.
After some trial and error the PDF engine that works best for me is LuaTeX. I don’t know why, so don’t ask me.
At the beginning of my markdown documents I now have a preamble/YAML header that looks like this:
--- author: Chris Bissette title: A Markdown Workflow mainfont: AlegreyaSans ---
In order for this to work you need to tell Pandoc which PDF engine to use when converting, which means adding something to the command when you run it. My Pandoc command looks like this:
pandoc -s source-file.md -o destination-file.pdf –pdf-engine=lualatex
There are ways to do more font customisation using CSS but I haven’t looked into that myself. For me personally, having everything within one source file is important purely because it’s lower cognitive load. If you’re interested in working with external stylesheets for this stuff, James Chip has a tutorial here.
I’ve been using this list of fonts. They will, obviously, need to be installed on your system for you to be able to use them.
With LaTeX you can dictate different fonts for headers and body text etc. and I haven’t yet figured out how to do that with markdown without using external stylesheets, but I’d like to.
I don’t dictate fonts in my epubs. The entire purpose of an epub is to allow readers to set their own font, letter size, etc. so I just leave it at default.
Markdown handles internal links to headers natively. You make a header like this:
# A Header
And you link to it with a reference link that looks like this:
[Link text here](#-a-header)
Nice and easy.
Unfortunately when you convert with Pandoc it just doesn’t work 95% of the time. If you look at my PDFs for Reivdene you’ll see that these links are a mess.
I figured out that the reason they aren’t working is because the file itself doesn’t tell Pandoc what it wants to be. The second I added an output format to my YAML header, the internal links worked perfectly. Now if I want to output a PDF my header looks like this:
--- author: Chris Bissette title: A Markdown Workflow mainfont: AlegreyaSans output: pdf linkcolor: blue ---
By default links don’t look any different to normal text in the PDF output, so I also define the link colour here.
This does add a couple of extra steps to my process, because if I want internal links to work I need to change the output to read "epub" before I make an epub and "html_document" before I make an HTML page, but it’s the work of 30 seconds to do it.
Table Of Contents
I mentioned earlier that you can use a few LaTeX commands in your markdown without issue. Luke mentioned in his post that at some point he’ll write up his "little list of useful LaTeX you can drop straight into markdown to make slightly nicer PDFs" and he hasn’t done that yet, but he has shared them with me and so I’m going to share them with you and hope he doesn’t mind.
At the beginning of my documents, immediately after the YAML header, I include these commands:
This means that my document preamble looks like this:
--- title: A Markdown Workflow author: Chris Bissette mainfont: AlegreyaSans output: pdf linkcolor: blue --- \maketitle \tableofcontents
maketitle creates a title page. tableofcontents generates a TOC from your headers and populates it with internal links. You can also follow this with a command to start a new page after the TOC, if you want:
--- title: A Markdown Workflow author: Chris Bissette mainfont: AlegreyaSans output: pdf linkcolor: blue --- \maketitle \tableofcontents \newpage
Right now that’s basically everything I’m doing in markdown to make these PDFs. It’s very simple and I spend less time fucking around with styling etc. than when I used to write in GDocs or traditional word processors, and I get output that looks just as good as any plain text file I’d save in Word or Docs.
"Why bother?" is a big question and the main and most honest answer is that it doesn’t take any meaningful effort from me to produce these additional formats, and plain text formats are much more accessible than PDFs. The epubs and plain text PDFs this method produces still aren’t perfect – and I’ll touch on that a little later – but they’re certainly friendlier for screenreaders than your average print-ready PDF that hasn’t had any post-layout accessibility work done on it, and they don’t suffer from any colour contrast issues as they’re just black text on white backgrounds.
PDFs are an inherently inaccessible format. There’s a reason that novels aren’t published in PDF form, and it’s because they’re not designed for people to actually read from them. They’re designed to speak to printers, to ensure that when you’ve made your print ready file you can send it to your printer (printer as in "the company doing your printing" not "your HP Deskjet") and be assured that the physical product will look exactly as you intended it. For some reason RPGs have decided that these will be our primary mechanism of delivering non-print books.
Reading PDFs from screens is miserable. This is why epubs exist. Every website in the history of websites runs off HTML. The closer you get to plain text, the more you can be assured that anybody who needs to use your document will be able to access it in a way that suits them best. Screenreaders also use HTML, and part of tagging a PDF is in making sure that screenreaders pick up on things like Header tags, lists, etc. and recognise them for what they are.
The other "why?" is a more financially-motivated one, and that’s that it allows me to put out a bare-bones "aschan" release of something very quickly and easily. I don’t need to do any typesetting whatsoever, I can just write a book the way I write books and then export it to several formats in literal seconds. I can throw that up online, ask for money for it, and gauge interest. And if there’s interest, then I can expend time and money on making a "nice" layout and doing a print run. It’s faster and more efficient, and that lets me be more productive.
I have a few main takeaways from all of this. The first is that there’s no one size fits all solution to "accessibility". It’s a process and a mindset, not a checklist. There will always be use cases you couldn’t account for and that you don’t know how to address. The best things you can do are to give a shit in the first place, and to make it as easy as possible for people to engage with your work. That’s the purpose of multiple formats.
Every time I learn something new, I also learn how much I don’t know.
This week, the biggest lesson I learned was that accessibility starts with good, clear writing. I spent a long time trying to figure out how to write suitable alt text for the maps in In The Bluelight before I realised that actually, if I just wrote the room entries in a way that’s unambiguous about how the spaces link together, I don’t need the map at all. (Obviously the maps are still included for sighted readers but now they’re not necessary, and that’s the important bit).
Which brings me to…
The PDFs Pandoc spits out play nicer with screenreaders than the ones that e.g. Google Docs makes, but they’re not perfect. I still haven’t found a way to add functional alt text to images inside the documents, and I’ve been making do with captions instead. This is a "fix", but it’s not ideal.
I’ve done a lot of research about how to make this work and I don’t think there’s any way to do it that exists, which means this is always going to be a compromise if I’m going to include images in my PDFs. What this means is that I’m going to be more mindful of how I make books in future, and make sure that my work is accessible on a textual level and that images are mainly for ornament rather than being a necessary part of the work.
The other large issue is that because Pandoc uses LaTeX to generate the PDFs, and LaTeX is – for some reason – unable to generate tagged PDFs, the files Pandoc creates aren’t tagged either. This means that screenreaders don’t know that they’re looking at headers, lists, etc. This is, obviously, not ideal. A fix for this in the short term is to export the HTML and then bring that into LibreOffice to produce the PDFs and epubs, because LibreOffice respects the HTML and will produce tagged files. I’m still looking for a fix that will allow me to continue using a workflow where I only use one program (preferably a markdown editor) and can produce multiple formats easily, but in the meantime at least this method does exist.
I have a few things that I want to learn to do that I haven’t actually looked into yet, so I don’t know how easy (or not) these are. But my list looks like this:
- Output mobi format. Kindles are, by far, the most common ereader, so it makes sense to provide books in their native format
- Different header and body fonts in the same PDF from one file (i.e. no external CSS)
- TOC in HTML files. The tableofcontents commands work great in PDFs and epub but don’t do anything for HTML, even though some flavours of Markdown support this. I haven’t figured out where I’m going wrong yet, but I had to manually build the TOC for In The Bluelight and it was very time consuming. I don’t want to do that again.
- LaTeX supports changing the paper size. So far I haven’t managed to make it work in pure markdown. I’d like to be able to output A5 documents. Don’t ask me why, I just want to.
- Pandoc can output to ICML, the language InCopy uses to talk to InDesign. I’m going to see about introducing that into my workflow for print rather than using the script to convert markdown to styles and see if my results are any better.
And that’s it. Thanks for reading.
~5 minute read
Imagine: You’re 35. You don’t have a driver’s license.
When you were 18 you moved to the city, and you’ve lived in the same 10 mile radius ever since. Any time you wanted to go anywhere, do anything, have an experience outside the same rain-slick streets you call home, that meant public transport.
It meant trains. During the years when you were devastatingly, teeth-falling-out-of-your-head poor, it meant long coach journeys booked months in advance, paying a couple of quid to travel hundreds of miles and getting exactly what you paid for.
Have you ever seen a coach station at 4:30am? Have you ever slept in one, because whatever thing you were going to finished after the last coach had left but you couldn’t also afford a night in a hostel?
They’re hostile places. Harsh strip lights, anti-homeless seats that you can’t stretch out on or get comfortable on for more than a few minutes at a time. Blaring announcements, distorted tannoy voices telling you to remain vigilant, report anything strange. See it. Say it. Sorted. Designed for waiting but not lingering. Liminal spaces that hate you and want you gone.
So many journeys have started and ended at coach stations. So many stories. So many adventures.
When I was 20 I read Dracula for the first time and I became obsessed. I can’t tell you what it was about the book that gripped me but something did. Fifteen years later it’s still one of my favourite novels, to the extent that I collect different editions of it for no reason other than that I started doing it at some point and never stopped.
But that’s not the story.
When I was 20 I read Dracula for the first time and I became obsessed. And I decided, on a whim, that I wanted to go to Whitby. The ruined abbey towered in my mind, beckoning me to come and visit. There was a Dracula museum, the kind of thing that’s probably shit but might not be.
I don’t drive, and I couldn’t afford a train (if you can even get a train from Manchester to Whitby. I honestly don’t know) so I booked a coach. Not the National Express – no way I could afford that. MegaBus, the world’s most inappropriately named travel company.
The first leg of the journey was fine. I got on a coach early in the morning – I don’t remember what time exactly – and settled in for the trip to Leeds, where I had to change. I have stories about Leeds coach station – one of the most depressing places in the country – but they’re for another time.
In Leeds I waited for an hour. I bought greasy bacon on a floury white barm from a man in a van in the carpark and dripped fat and brown sauce down my t-shirt. I read a couple of chapters of Dracula. And then the next coach turned up.
The next coach wasn’t a coach at all. It was a double-decker Stagecoach bus, the kind that shuttles you around city centres, and it was going to drive me up the moors to Whitby.
The cosastliner takes two hours. This bus, somehow, was going to take four.
I’ve never had a bus journey so simultaneously terrifying and boring. There’s no way to be comfortable on the hard plastic seats of twenty-year-old Stagecoach bus at the best of time, but especially not when it’s careering around the tiny, windy country roads of the North Yorkshire moors. Every time we rounded a switchback going down the side of a hill the bus tipped in a way that made me think I was going to revisit my breakfast. At one point we stopped for twenty minutes to wait for a flock of sheep to cross the road.
Eventually we reached Whitby and I stretched my legs, somehow numb and cramping at the same time. There was a ship moored in the harbour and the abbey was silhouetted against a sky so bright and blue I thought it would blind me if I looked up for too long. The day was gorgeous and I felt that the journey had been worth it.
The Dracula museum was closed, because it doesn’t open on Mondays and I had somehow missed that when planning the trip, but it was hard to be too disappointed. I made the long hike up to the abbey and spent an hour wandering around the ruins. I visited charity shops. I ate fish and chips in a pub with a view of the sea. I walked the gangplank onto the ship – I can’t remember now whether it was used in Pirates of the Carribean or Master and Commander or both – and explored the decks and talked to the guys who worked on it, sailing this mobile tourist attraction around the world. I watched people empty mountains of lobster pots.
A few hours later I walked up the road and got back on a coach and returned to Manchester via Leeds and I remember nothing of the journey. I still haven’t been to the Dracula museum.
Other stories, but briefer: A six hour coach to London to see Hot Water Music, the bus packed full of kids who called themselves Army going to see BTS, my first exposure to K-Pop, their excitement and passion contagious and thrilling; crossing the Severn bridge, watching in bleary-eyed surprise as on one side a tiny Peugeot 206 depseratly tried to fight against a crosswind threatening to blow it across the carriageway while on the other side a mile-long queue of tanks rolled slowly into Wales; the lurch in my stomach, sitting on a bus in Salford trying to get to work, as a lad in a mask ran out into the road and my instincts knew that a brick was about to go through the window of the bus before my eyes had even registered that he was holding it; sitting down on a coach to go to Glasgow and realising that the guy asleep next to me was someone I’d lived with for two years at uni, whose name I’d never learned. He didn’t wake during the journey, we didn’t speak, and I’m not even sure he knew I was there or that he would have recognised me if he’d opened his eyes.
I could tell stories that take place on buses and trains coaches, in taxis or tour vans or lying in the boot of a friend’s car at 3 in the morning hoping we wouldn’t get pulled over because there wasn’t room for all of us but we were definitely going to a rave, all day long. The percentage of my life that I’ve spent in transit is vast.
Public transport runs on timetables. I’ve been hours early for buses, forced to wait around in blustery shelters for what feels like days. I’ve been almost late, sprinting down train station platforms to jump through a door being held open by a kindly conductor as the train begins to pull away. I’ve missed buses, the door closing in my face as I reached it, or watching the damn thing pull away as I desperately try to cross the road, being forced to ask myself now what. One time I booked tickets for a bus that did not exist. MegaBus, again. Thanks.
One thing I can’t tell you? The times of any of those journeys. The day of the week. The service number.
Many of my stories begin and end with journeys. Many of them are the journey. But the systems that made those journeys possible don’t factor in to the stories at all. They don’t matter.
Similarly, I could tell you stories about the game I’ve played over the years. I could tell you about the whisky-slinging munitions expert who set off a grenade deep underground and buried himself and his friends. I could tell you about the super chill demon guarding a stash of ancient magical artifacts, who shot the shit with a group of adventurers and calmly warned them that he was very sorry but if they opened the door to his room he’d have to murder them all. Nothing personal, just my job. The dwarven cleric wrestling with his gender; the orc bard with the history of his people tattooed on his skin; the barbarian who stuffed an enemy into a bag of holding and dropped him off a roof; the reluctant magician in Victorian england who fell in love with a man he’d only ever seen through a scrying mirror.
So many stories about so many games, and not one of them cares about the way I rolled dice or the numbers I wrote down on a sheet.
Systems facilitate story. They get you where you need to be so that you can do the thing you’re going to do. They aren’t the story itself. As I write this I’m on a train heading to Nottingham, to spend the weekend playing games in person with people I’ve been playing with online for the past 18 months.
The stories this weekend will bring don’t care that my train left Manchester at 11:27 this morning.
Stop obsessing over systems. Start telling stories.
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2440 words. 10 minute read.
Content Warning: The essay touches briefly on an account of an abusive relationship, and gaslighting. It also contains spoilers for Tim Hutching’s Thousand Year Old Vampire and the companion volume.
My relationship with memory is a strange, intimate, frustrating one. One the one hand, my memory is excellent. On the other, it’s effectively non-functional.
My memory is wonderful. I can relive conversations from two decades ago as though they were happening now. When I smell ironing I remember my mother, ironing in the kitchen at the height of summer in the mid 90s, George Michael’s Careless Whisper on the radio as the asphalt melted outside and we had water fights that felt particularly dangerous under the ominous threat of a hosepipe ban.
I remember being woken by my mother, late at night in January 1991 when I wasn’t even five years old, telling me to come downstairs and watch TV, we’ve just bombed Iraq. I can still smell the cheap bubblegum and musty seats on a school coach taking us home as, a decade and a handful of months later, David Kelly stood on the seat with his ear to a radio and told us that “someone’s bombed America”. We cheered and laughed, because we were 15 and naive and stupid, and then I got home and watched a second plane hit a second tower and humour evaporated from the world in a matter of seconds.
I remember the moment I first saw the woman who is now my partner, a rare flash of lightbulb memory in a period of years that is an amorphous haze due to an abusive relationship that saw me gaslighted for years, so stressed that my teeth were falling out of my mouth. It was the first day of my Masters and I was sitting at the front of the room during an induction, trying to figure out if there was anybody here who I knew and how much older than everybody else I was, and this girl walked through the door and everything stopped. She was wearing a black leather jacket and blue jeans and had sharp black wings around her eyes. She was just late enough that everyone noticed when she walked in, and my heart stopped in my chest. A few minutes later we got told to go and talk to somebody who we’d never met before, and I made a beeline for her.
I have zero memory of what we talked about, and we’d barely speak for another two years before the planets aligned and we fell into each other’s lives again.
My memory is abysmal. It doesn’t function. I have a neurological condition – untreated, undiagnosed until my early 30s – that renders my short term memory practically useless, especially during periods of high stress. If you haven’t been paying attention, 2020 and 2021 have been particularly stressful. I don’t remember them. I don’t remember what I did yesterday. I may have spoken to you. I may have promised you I’d write something for you, or read something, or look something up and get back to you. If I didn’t write it down, it might as well not have happened.
This, you may imagine, is quite an impairment for somebody who makes part of their living as a freelance writer who people have to be able to rely on.
As I’m writing this, I’ve just stopped to look for the coffee that I know I made when I walked in to the office. That was an hour ago. I genuinely don’t know if I drank it or if I left it somewhere, but it’s gone.
On top of the fact that my brain is wired poorly, I have a history of abuse – a very specific type of abuse that led me to strongly doubt my own memories. I can’t trust my recollections of the past, even though I know that when I do remember things I remember them well. My 20s are a blur, a vague mist with a few patches of very clear light. When people ask things like, “What’s your earliest memory?” or “What was your favourite holiday as a kid?” I don’t have answers. I remember a few very specific, very clear things. The rest is fog.
Enter Thousand Year Old Vampire, a game I own two copies of because – when it was proving very hard to get hold of in the UK – a friend told me he’d arranged with a local gaming store to reserve two copies when they arrived. I forgot, and ordered one directly from Tim Hutchings as well. They both arrived on the same day, and I laughed about it because my life is one endless parade of things arriving that I forgot I’d bought and already own.
TYOV is deeply, intimately connected with memory. Memory is a finite resource, and you are old. Ancient. Potentially eternal. When you create your vampire, you create the memories that you carry with you. And as you play, you destroy them and replace them with new ones. It’s an unsettling, emotional, visceral journey – and it hit me hard, because it replicated, in some small way, the way I experience life.
I haven’t finished my play through of TYOV. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve started to play the game. When I bought it I also bought a new notebook and a new fountain pen, along with some blood-red ink to write in. I do this for all my journaling games.
I don’t know where that notebook is. I put it down after a few days of playing the game on and off, and then I never saw it again. At some point I tidied TYOV itself onto my shelves, and as far as my brain was concerned it ceased to exist.
This has happened multiple times with this game. It feels very fitting.
During ZineQuest this year Tim launched a campaign for A Fantastic Longing For Adventure, an autobiographical zine game played with pieces of coloured plastic that you use to decode messages across the three zines. This is, to coin a phrase, exactly my shit. The title of my MA is “Creative Writing: Innovation & Experiment”. I’m deeply interested in weird narrative things, in writing that breaks our conceptions of what a text can do, from B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates to House Of Leaves to Tom Abba’s These Pages Fall Like Ash and everything in between. I was very excited for A Fantastic Longing.
The Kickstarter launched, and Tim also announced that he was released a secret companion book to TYOV. “It’s a book that complements the Thousand Year Old Vampire game,” he wrote. “It’s not a useful book and you probably shouldn’t order it. It’s not a game, there are no words, it’s not a journal or addendum to play. It’s an experience, I think, but it might not be for you.”
I am a collector. I am a fan of Thousand Year Old Vampire and Tim’s work in general (Weird Horror is one of the best things on my shelf). I live for experimental, weird shit. I ordered it immediately.
And then I forgot.
My first exposure to Dadaism was somebody showing me an image of Duchamp’s Fountain. My initial response was laughter and the words, “what the fuck is that?” I was told that Dadaism – and Duchamp especially – were exactly my shit and that I was about to have my mind blown.
I don’t remember who told me that, but they were not wrong.
I’m not an expert on art or Dadaism or… well, anything. But I like it, a lot. I like the questions it’s made me ask myself – about art, about my relationship with art, about the nature of art itself. About the intersections of art and capitalism. About ideas of utility, function, and expression. I enjoy the mental friction that comes with looking at a piece of art and thinking “what the fuck is this?” – and then it gestates, and I don’t stop thinking about it, and slowly the question becomes “how did I ever think this was anything other than brilliant?”
The Thousand Year Old Vampire companion volume did all this to me.
When it arrived, I was excited. The envelope had Tim’s name on the return address and, for once, I wasn’t confused. I remembered. I knew exactly what this was, and I knew that I’d been looking forward to it for a while. I opened it immediately.
When I saw the cover – the same as TYOV, but with all the words smeared out – I smiled. And then I turned to the first page, and the smile became a frown. My partner asked me if I was okay as I flicked through the book, looking at the shapes and colours and nonsense on the pages.
I put it down, because I felt angry. I felt robbed. Cheated. I’ve been lied to, I said to myself. This is a fucking con. What the fuck is this?
I went online, to Kickstarter, to see how Tim had sold this thing. What had he said about it, back in February, when I’d been so excited to order it?
It’s not a game, he’d said. It’s not a journal or writing book, he’d said. You probably shouldn’t order it.
I put it down. I ate dinner. I read some Kickstarter comments – many outraged, some seemingly in on the joke.
I started talking to my partner about it. And as I talked, it began to make sense. I began to get it. I began to realise that this was exactly my shit. And I realised that I hadn’t been lied to, at all. I’d got exactly what I was told I was buying.
There’s so much to say about the Thousand Year Old Vampire companion that I almost don’t know where to begin. I’ve written 1600 words, and I haven’t even started yet.
One of my initial thoughts was “this serves no purpose”. And in the twelve hours since I had that thought, I’ve come back to it a lot. I don’t like that that was my instinct. I hate that we live in a world where I can look at a piece of art and think “what use does this serve?”
Part of me thinks that this is a facet of the form this companion volume takes. If you’ll allow me to step sideways into Heidegger for a second, there’s a distinction between objects and things. Books are objects; they serve a purpose. They contain words that we can read, or pictures that we can look at and have some kind of emotional response to. Or they don’t – they contain nothing, void, lines or dots that invite us to make our own make, fill them with our self.
Either way, books are functional. They are object.
The Thousand Year Old Vampire companion does neither of these things. It contains no words. The spreads aren’t “art” in the traditional sense of the word. The “almost museum quality paper” is explicitly not suitable for writing on (and just touching it tells you that ink won’t take to it, unless you write in it in Sharpie).
The companion isn’t an object. It’s a thing. And that creates friction.
I look around my office, though, and I’m surrounded by books. Literally, surrounded. At last count I have about 3000 books of various types and genres shoved onto shelves, stacked two- or three-deep, precariously balanced in places not designed to hold them. I’ve read 90% of them, and I tell myself that if you were to pull one off the shelf and ask me about it I’d be able to talk to you about it.
In many cases that’s true, but in many cases that’s a complete lie. I might remember the vague shape of what the book contains, a detail here and there, maybe the name of a character. I might have to read the back of the book to jog my memory. Or I might look at it like I’ve never seen it before.
What is the state of those books that I don’t remember? Words on the page may as well not exist until you look at them, read them, take them in. If a book sits on a shelf, unread and unopened for many years, does it actually contain anything? The books on my shelf that I’ve read and forgotten contain a trace of what they used to be. They’re the memory of narrative, a few smears of story.
Paging through the Thousand Year Old Vampire companion feels like looking at the memory of a book. The right shapes on the page are there, the blur of lettering seen in a dream, but there’s no meaning. No “content”.
The reaction to this thing has, unsurprisingly, been mixed. People have called it a con, a joke, a rip-off. Useless.
But these are gamers we’re talking about. On my shelves, in front of the books and the memories of books, there is a broad collection of what can only be described as tat. I have Funko Pops – the memory of an action figure, all points of articulation gone, stored in a box, unable to be played with. I have plush toys that have never been cuddled. I have collectors editions of video games that came with massive figurines that gather dust on the top of my bookcases. We call it memorabilia when what they really are is just things.
There are spreads and pages in the companion that could have been sold separately as art prints. People would have bought them with no questions asked, paying ten or fifteen dollars for them. Buy four or five and it’s cost you more than the price of this book, and nobody would have questioned it.
But this is a book. Made by a game designer. Surely it must serve a purpose? It must be useful, functional, playable. Right?
When I realised I wanted to write this essay I was walking to work. I had snippets in my head, things I wanted to say, bold turns of phrase and insightful paragraphs about art and thing theory and post-modernism. Some of it was genuinely very good. I was reminded of the essays I wrote during my MA, when I really got to dig in to a topic I was passionate about.
Then I got to work, and I made a coffee, and I said hello to people, and my memory did what it does. It betrayed me.
So you get this. The memory of an essay.
And that seems fitting, somehow.
Thousand Year old Vampire and the companion volume are available from thousandyearoldvampire.com.
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The first time I ever played a roleplaying game was in June 1994, when I was given the AD&D First Quest boxed set for my birthday. I remember it fondly and still have it on my shelf in surprisingly good condition (I even still have all the minis, and the CD still plays). But while First Quest was the first time I actually played the game, it wasn’t my first experience of D&D.
The reason I got given that present, and the tender age of 8 years old, was because I used to go with my dad to his friend Henry’s house, where I’d sit and watch them play a game I didn’t understand that involved a lot of shouting, some really intricate, beautifully painted models of ruins and caves and graveyards and stuff that looked metal as fuck, and some books with bright red covers.
I actually only vaguely remember the books that my dad and his friends used – my memories are filled with an enormous, intricate dungeon spread across a tabletop, which I assume was some kind of ongoing megadungeon they were playing through. I don’t know what edition they were playing. This would have been some time between ‘90 and ‘94, so there’s probably equal chances that it was AD&D, BECMI, or 2nd Edition. And I have the rulebooks for all of those editions, inherited from my dad, so that doesn’t help at all.
What I do know is that I’ve played AD&D and I’ve played 2e, but I’ve never fucked with BECMI. And as last week was horrible, I want to do something that I’m at least tangentially familiar with. So today we’re rolling up a character in the dragon game.
The first thing that surprises me is that BECMI contains a solo adventure to teach you how to play the game. How has nobody ever told me about this?
Well, the answer to that question is that it isn’t really a solo adventure at all. It’s an overly long, not very well written story with some mechanics thrown in that slowly introduces the basic concepts of the game and asks you to roll a d20 a few times while you go through it. I can imagine it was quite helpful if you had no conception of how an RPG worked. Nearly 40 years later it’s nowhere near as relevant or useful, but that isn’t the game’s fault. (The two alternate endings to this “adventure” absolutely remind me of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Maybe one week I’ll roll up an Advanced Fighting Fantasy character, though that would be a very short post.)
The second solo adventure really does feel like a Fighting Fantasy gamebook. I don’t bother to read it or play through it because frankly I just want to get to making a character, but I’m back to being surprised that nobody ever told me this is how BECMI taught the game. I’m also surprised I’ve never heard of M1: Blizzard Pass or M2: Maze of the Riddling Minotaur before.
Time to jump forward past the rest of the book to get to character creation. Will I regret skipping the next 20 pages or so? Very possible. Is that going to stop me? Not at all.
BECMI tells me that my first character will take about an hour to make. Since I’m writing this post at the same time I assume that’s going to be closer to 90 minutes. I’ll be interested to see how accurate that guess is (and whether the fact that I’m familiar with later editions of D&D helps at all).
The first step is one I’m definitely familiar with: roll 3d6 in order for ability scores. I get the following scores:
STR 11 INT 13 WIS 11
DEX 15 CON 9 CHA 13
I rolled surprisingly well. I can’t complain about those scores at all.
Step two is to pick a class. My first ever D&D character was Slinker, the thief from First Quest, so I’m going to make a thief. I’d decided this before I rolled, and it’s very convenient that my highest score is in dexterity since that’s the prime requisite for Thieves. (I promise I actually rolled 3d6 in order and came out with these results).
Also, using the words “prime requisite” again for the first time in 20 years makes me very nostalgically happy.
Step three is to exchange ability score points if you want to, raising one ability score by 1 point at the cost of lowering another by 2. This feels like an early form of point buy, and it’s something I don’t ever remember being allowed to do in AD&D. Maybe it was removed from later editions, or maybe I just didn’t know that was a thing I could do. Who knows? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.) I decide I’m going to drop my Wisdom by 2 points (to 9) and my Intelligence by 2 (to 11) so that I can raise my Dexterity 2 points to 17. I would have liked to have dropped my Charisma to get the Dex up to 18 (because if 27 years of playing dragon games has taught me anything it’s that 18 is a good score to have) but that’s not allowed for some reason. Now my abilities look like this:
STR 11 INT 11 WIS 9
DEX 17 CON 9 CHA 13
Step 4 is to roll for Hit Points. Thieves have a d4 hit die, which is ludicrous and tells me that the play style for thieves has really changed a lot in the past 30 years or so! With a Con of 9 I don’t have any modifier to my roll, and I end up with 3hp to start.
Step 5 is to roll for money. My character starts out with no possessions except for normal clothes and a little money, and now I see where Mӧrk Borg gets it from. (I’m realising as I write these posts that I’m really showing off how little I know about the history of this hobby, and honestly I’m fine with that.) I start with 100gp, which seems okay? I guess I’ll find out in the next step, when I have to try and equip myself with this money.
In checking the description of the Thief I learn that I should carry missile weapons, plus a sword or dagger for situations where I can’t avoid close combat. I’m only allowed leather armour, and I can’t use a shield or two-handed weapons. I’ll also need Thieves’ Tools if I’m going to open any locks – and since that’s literally my job, I guess I’d better buy them!
With all this in mind, I turn to the weapons and equipment list on page 29. Leather armour, a short bow and quiver with 20 arrows, a normal sword, backpack, set of Thieves’ Tools, hand mirror, 10’ pole, and 50’ length of rope costs 97gp. That means I can’t afford rations, which I assume I’ll also need. I put the normal sword back and instead buy a short sword, freeing up another 3gp. 1 week’s worth of rations and a waterskin takes me up to 100gp even. Now I see why I’m a thief – gear is expensive, and I’m flat broke after outfitting myself. I also realise I don’t have a lantern – hopefully, whichever theoretical adventuring party I join will have ample light sources with them.
In step 7 we work out the rest of the mechanical stuff – AC, Hit Roll chart, and Saving Throws. With leather armour and a Dex of 17, I have an AC of 5. I suddenly remember that THAC0 and “lower is better” AC is a thing that I might have to contend with, but I also remember that I never hated it as much as everyone I speak to about early D&D seems to. I imagine it’s different in BECMI to 2e, and I suppose I’m about to find out.
It turns out that every starting character uses the same Hit Roll Table. So that’s handy – I don’t need to work anything out, and won’t need to until I get to at least 4th level. I grab my Saving Throws from my class description, figure out my modifiers (called Adjustments in BECMI), and now my character looks like this:
- STR 11 (+0) INT 11 (+0) WIS 9 (+0)
- DEX 17 (+2) CON 9 (+0) CHA 13 (+1)
- Max Retainers: 4 (Morale 7)
- Reaction Adjustment: None
- Languages: 2
|Hit Roll Table|
- Saving Throws
- Death Ray or Poison: 13
- Magic Wands: 14
- Paralysis or Turn to Stone: 13
- Dragon Breath: 16
- Rods, Staves or Spells: 15
Can I just take a second to say that I love that in a set of five saving throws, there’s one that’s explicitly for dragon breath? Dragons have never really shown up in the D&D games I’ve played in, but this tells me that the early dragon game expected you to be fighting them quite regularly. Which makes sense, since they’re in the title of the game and all.
I know two languages, Common and my Alignment tongue, but I haven’t actually chosen my alignment yet. I assume we’ll get to that. I know – just through cultural osmosis rather than reading the game – that alignment was a lot more important and impactful in early D&D. I’m not 100% sure on the how or why, other than knowing that alignment languages exist and that only creatures of the right alignment can speak them. (Very historically accurate, right?)
I don’t have to wait long to figure this out, because step 9 is to choose a name and an alignment. I’m just going to call my character Slinker because that was the name of the 2nd Edition thief I played and I don’t fancy making up a name at 2:40am (don’t ask me why I was writing this post at nearly 3 in the morning).
As far as alignment goes, I follow the suggestion of turning to page 55 (not 59, as the book states) and reading about it. I hadn’t realised that BECMI just uses Lawful/Chaotic/Neutral, with no Good and Evilm and honestly I prefer that to the later iterations of alignment. I decide on Neutrality for Slinker – they’re self-involved and out for their own personal gain, but they’re not so untrustworthy that they can’t work with a group. They wouldn’t last long as an adventurer if that were the case.
And that’s it! Even with typing up this blog post at the same time as creating the character, it only took around 45 minutes. I know absolutely nothing about who this person is (other than that they’re Neutral, with the brief character traits I came up with to justify that decision) and that’s fine, because it will come out in play. I know my role, I know why I’m adventuring (because I’m flat broke), and I’m ready to play.
Having made this character I can definitely see where the OSR games like Mӧrk Borg come from (and really that’s not a grand revelation, is it? I already knew that they’ve got their roots here even if I hadn’t experienced it for myself). I’m interested to see how B/X differs (especially as OSE and Labyrinth Lord are retroclones of B/X – I’m curious to know why they chose that over BECMI). I’m also interested to dig into some of the more modern OSR games like the Black Hack, Whitehack, and maybe Macchiato Monsters just to see how games approach the source material from a different angle.
Next week, though, I’m going to go in a completely different direction. BECMI was fun and familiar and scratched a nostalgia itch for me, so next time I’m going to delve into territory I know nothing about. It’s time for Rolemaster.
Here’s what I know about Burning Wheel.
- Mouse Guard is based on it and I like Mouse Guard a lot
- It’s got some kind of lifepath character creation system
- The book on my shelf is still wrapped in the plastic it came in when I bought it
That’s it. I don’t even know whether the book I’ve got (the Gold Edition) is the most recent edition. And, frankly, I’m not about to spend the time finding out. This is the edition I own so it’s the edition I’m going to use.
Let’s crack the spine and make a character.
The Foreword to the book is encouraging. It states, boldly, “Burning Wheel’s character creation drips with character history. History breeds conflict. Conflict means taking a stand. What will your character stand for?” I’m into it.
The book then goes on to say that there’s no default setting for the game, and that gives me pause. This might be a frustrating exercise, making a character who’s a collection of meaningless numbers and abilities with no ties to any fiction. We’ll see what happens I suppose, though any excitement I was feeling about this process has just drained out of me like…I don’t know, something that drains. Quickly.
The next thing that saps any remaining enthusiasm is this paragraph: “The basic rules for play are presented first. We recommend starting by reading the first 75 pages of Burning Wheel. After digesting the basics, make […] a character.”
Seventy. Five. Pages. In a book that’s already told me there’s no setting or lore.
75 pages of pure mechanics is my nightmare scenario but I guess this is what’s going to happen now. I’ve got some reading to do.
I have a confession to make. Reading mechanics makes my head hurt. I learn games best by doing, not reading, and if your game book frontloads all the rules for play without giving me the ability to jump in and start playing, I’m probably not going to read them.
That’s exactly what happened with Burning Wheel. I got about 20 page in, did a big frown when it started talking about exponents and shade, and skipped the rest of the rules to get to character creation. Let’s see if that had any ill effect on the rest of the process, shall we?
After another 5 pages of lectures and explaining what’s about to happen and why it’s so very important (I’m really not enjoying the tone of this book at all – can you tell?) it’s time to get down to Character Burning. It’s broken into three categories:
- Developing a concept
- Choosing lifepaths
- Spending the points earned on those lifepaths
Within these three categories there are twelve steps, and the rules say that I should expect to take 45 minutes to an hour the first time through.
I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll enjoy this little character creation minigame. That optimism is tempered by the fact that I haven’t enjoyed reading anything preceding it in the book. Maybe that’s a me problem.
The first step is developing a concept, which is meant to tie in to the kind of story your group wants to tell and the world they want to tell it in. Since I’m doing this solo and don’t have anything to go on, I’m going to take the concept of the character I made last week in Mӧrk Bӧrg – a fallen royal called Arvent whose kingdom has crumbled into extreme poverty, who is trying to reclaim their former glory.
The next step is to choose a lifepath limit. I guess this is like the number of reenlistments in Traveller? The book says that three-lifepath characters make good starting characters so I’ll do three. Unless I hate it or this post gets overly long, in which case I’ll do fewer.
At this point I decide to read the rest of this chapter before I do anything else (which breaks down the 12 steps for character creations and is one big example). It’s 20 pages long and as I go through it any residual enthusiasm I had for making characters in this system evaporates.
But anyway. Step 3 is to choose “character stock” – Dwarf, Elf, Orc, or Man. Since there’s no inherent setting to the game I don’t really know what this means, if anything. I decide on Man purely because the character I made in Mӧrk Bӧrg was human so I guess this one should be, too. And that’s the default option in most games, right? In theory it will be the most straightforward, and that’s what I need right now.
There’s no page references here. I turn pages until I find the section titled “Man”, with a finger in the book so I can turn back to the instructions to remind myself what I’m meant to do.
I’m not going to document every little detail of the character creation process as I flip back and forth in this book. I’m going to list the lifepaths I choose in the same format the book’s example gives, and then go into the mechanical decisions. Let’s see what happens.
The fun part of this process is that I’m writing this blog as I’m making the character, not afterwards, and so I don’t know what’s going to happen.
What happened is that I gave up. I started picking lifepaths, beginning with the Born Noble path as required. I tried to figure out how to make a character from fallen nobility, and assumed this would require me to pursue some Leads. I wanted to choose the Prince of the Blood lifepath before having the fall happen, and that was where I hit a wall. That lifepath requires the Your Grace trait, which is something that comes from the Born Noble path. But I couldn’t fully get my head around how Traits work. Do you need to choose them in order? Can you buy any trait from your lifepath once you’ve taken the first one (which is required)? I have no idea, and after half an hour of flipping back and forth in the book trying to work out what the fuck I was supposed to do I gave up.
I refuse to believe that anyone has ever made a character for this game in less than 15 minutes, as the book claims is possible once you’re used to it. If I ever suggest to you that we play Burning Wheel, come round to my house and kick me in the throat.
Next week I’m going to make a character in something that I actually enjoy.
If you’ve followed me on Twitter for more than five minutes then you’ll know that Mӧrk Borg is one of my favourite games. I run it a lot, but I’ve only had a chance to play it as a player rather than a GM a couple of times – and each time we used the fantastic Scvmbirther character generator to make characters. What this means is that I haven’t actually had an opportunity to create a character from scratch in one of my favourites games.
Today I’m going to fix that.
For those not in the know (I assume you’ve been sheltering in place under a rock or something), Mӧrk Borg is a very rules-light OSR game by Pelle Nilsson and Johan Nohr with the most visually stunning rulebook I’ve ever seen. Here’s how the game describes itself.
A doom metal album of a game. A spiked flail to the face. Light on rules, heavy everything else.
MÖRK BÖRG is a pitch-black apocalyptic fantasy RPG about lost souls and fools seeking redemption, forgiveness or the last remaining riches in a bleak and dying world. Who are you? The tomb-robber with silver glittering between cracked fingernails? The mystic who would bend the world’s heart away from it’s inevitable end? Confront power-draining necromancers, skulking skeletal warriors and backstabbing wickheads. Wander the Valley of the Unfortunate Undead, the catacombs beneath the Bergen Chrypt or the bedevilled Sarkash forest. But leave hope behind – the world’s cruel fate is sealed, and all your vain heroic efforts are destined to end in death and dismay. Or are they?Mӧrk Bӧrg
There’s two ways to go about character creation in Mӧrk Borg – with a class, or without. I can’t remember at which point in the process you decide, so I’m just going to start at the beginning of the book and see what happens.
As with Spire (the game I played around with last week – and this may well be the first time Spire and Mӧrk Borg have ever been directly compared, so we’re making history here) Mӧrk Borg opens with setting information. Spoiler alert: that’s going to be true of most games I look at. Although it isn’t true of Traveller, which is what prompted this whole exercise. And what a setting it is. I could write a dissertation on my thoughts about the world of Mӧrk Bӧrg and how it’s presented, but that’s not what we’re here for. That’s getting perilously close to review territory, and that’s not a pool I’m about to wade into.
Actually that’s a lie because the book doesn’t open with setting information. The end papers contain random tables – names, occult treasures, traps and devilry, weather, and corpse plundering that tell us a huge amount about the game before we’ve even properly opened the book. But again, I’m getting diverted from my purpose.
Let’s roll a goddamn character.
Spire starts us out with what you used to do before you joined the resistance. Mӧrk Bӧrg doesn’t care who you used to be. Instead, “to begin with, you are what you own.”
Immediately I get to do my favourite thing – roll dice. And my first roll is fucking great. My character starts with 120 silver (2d6x10 – yes, I rolled double sixes), a waterskin, and 2 days worth of food. Presumably I’ll have to spend some of that silver if I want to eat, unless I get stabbed for it first. I don’t know where that silver came from but apparently I’m rich.
The game does warn me that “your soul and your silver are your own and equally easy to lose” though, so there’s that.
Then we roll some more dice to see what else we own. I start with a backpack for 7 normal sized items, a medicine chest with Presence +4 uses, stops bleeding and infection and heals d6 HP. I’ve played Mӧrk Bӧrg before so I know what Presence is for, and so I have no insight about whether this is one of those occasions where a rules overview might have been useful before character creation or not. I don’t remember being at all confused the first time I read the book, though. I also have exquisite perfume worth 25s.
The fact that I’m rich, carrying a medicine chest, and have some very fancy perfume tells me I’m probably playing someone who’s relatively upper class (whatever that means in Mӧrk Bӧrg). We’ll see what else comes out as I make the character.
After rolling the starting equipment, we now get the full rundown of how to create a character – and this is where we have a choice. We can either:
- Randomize the starting equipment (which we’ve already done)
- Randomize weapon and armor.
- Roll abilities.
- Roll Hit Points.
- Name the character. (The exact wording is “Name your character if you wish. It will not save you”)
Or we can use the optional rules:
- Start by choosing or randomizing a class (page 46 and on) and follow the class’ instructions on rolling for equipment, weapons and armor.
- Roll on the tables on pages 39–43.
- Roll a number of Omens (page 38).
For completion I’m going to do both. We’ve already rolled starting equipment, so I’ll carry on with that method first and then make a new character using the optional rules.
So. We have our starting equipment. On to weapons and armour, which involves rolling a d10 and consulting the illustration of Wound Man. I roll a 6, which gives me a Sword (d6). Fitting for someone of higher class, I suppose. Armour is a d4 roll, and I come away with heavy armour which has some mechanical concerns. The full entry reads “heavy armor (splint, plate, etc, -d6 damage, tier 3) 200s. DR +4 on Agility tests, defence is DR+2”.
Again, if I hadn’t played the game I wouldn’t know what all this meant and that might be confusing. But the good thing is that because this is randomised, there’s no option paralysis here. I don’t have to wonder about whether I’m choosing the “right” things or not, because the dice choose for me.
The bottom of this page also tells me that scrolls will never work when wielding medium/heavy armor. So I’m not a spellcaster, unless I want to take my armour off.
The next step is to roll Abilities. Mӧrk Bӧrg has four of them – Agility, Presence, Strength, and Toughness – and they all use a modifier of between -3 to +3. It’s generated by rolling dice and consulting a table. Initially the rules tell you to roll 3d6, but then it goes on to say that if you’re not using the optional character classes you should instead roll 4d6 and drop the lowest for two abilities.
It’s implied here that you roll in order, but the fact that you can choose to roll 4d6 for two abilities tell me we get to make some decisions about who our character will be. I’ve already established that this character is quite wealthy, and I suspect that means they’re probably relatively well educated. That says to me that my Presence should be quite high (although with my armour I’m not going to be able to use Scrolls, but whatever). The massive armour and the sword also tells me that I’m probably quite strong, but the medicine chest has got me wondering if maybe I’m some kind of apothecary (in which case maybe I’m trained in poisons, and should think about Toughness).
In the end I decide that I’ll roll 4d6 for Presence and Toughness and 3d6 for Agility and Strength, and I get the following scores:
Agility – 10 (which becomes +0)
Presence – 14 (which becomes +1)
Strength – 8 (-1)
Toughness – 13 (+1)
They’re not bad scores really. A +1 makes a lot of difference in Mӧrk Bӧrg. It’s also interesting to note that the range to get +0 is 9-12 – a span of 3 numbers right in the average roll range, with results of -2 to +2 having tighter ranges of 2 numbers each. The game expects you to be average.
The final step is to roll hit points and pick a name. You begin with Toughness + d8 hit points, with a minimum of 1. I have 5 hit points, which is pretty good for a Mӧrk Bӧrg character. As for my name? The problem I had with naming my character in Spire doesn’t exist here, because there’s a d68 table of names on the inside front cover. My character is called Grin.
In theory I’m now done, but I know that there’s something missing because I’ve played the game before – Omens. The optional rules tell you to roll your Omens (which are a currency in the game you can use for rerolls, neutralising crits and fumbles, etc) but the standard rules don’t. Every character I’ve generated with Scvmbirther has had Omens as standard, even when I haven’t used the classes, so I turned to that page (pg 38) just to check. It turns out that every class gains a number of Omens specific to that class, and if you don’t use classes you start with d2 Omens. GrinI starts with 1.
This actually marks the first criticism I’ve found of Mӧrk Bӧrg in all the times I’ve read it and played it. This part of character creation isn’t clear. It’s not game breaking, it’s not a large issue, but I’d like it to be mentioned earlier in the book.
Right now I have a vague sense of my character and their place in the world. I have stuff that I’m not entirely sure how I came by, and my character doesn’t have much purpose, but that will come up in play. If I hadn’t been writing this post while rolling this character the process would have taken less than 5 minutes – which is great for Mӧrk Bӧrg, because lethality is high. (Last time I played the game I had two TPKs, and we just kept introducing new characters. Aside from the one who got cursed with immortality and therefore couldn’t die. It was a blast.) This process gave me a good sense of the tone of the game and the way it views characters, but not a huge impetus for my character to actually venture out into the world and explore it.
Let’s see if that changes when we use the classes.
As a reminder, here’s how we make a character with the optional classes.
- Start by choosing or randomizing a class (page 46 and on) and follow the class’ instructions on rolling for equipment, weapons and armor.
- Roll on the tables on pages 39–43.
- Roll a number of Omens (page 38).
There’s no list of the classes, but right at the top of page 46 is the header OPTIONAL CLASSES (D6). So let’s roll a d6.
I roll a 4, which gives me Wretched Royalty – weirdly, that’s quite fitting for Grin. Maybe I’m about to make the same character twice by accident. The flavour text tells me I’m “Bowed down only by the memories of your own lost glory, you could never submit to anyone else. Not you, of noble blood! (Not that you expect any of these peons to understand the depth of your sorrow.”
I start with 4d6x10 silver (140) and d2 Omens (2, this time).
I’m “painfully average”, so I adjust no abilities. (I assume that this is when I’m meant to roll my abilities, though the book doesn’t tell me to. I end up with Agility +2, Presence +1, Strength +0, and Toughness +0 after rolling 3d6 in order. Decent scores.)
I roll a d8 on the weapons table to end up with a Knife (interesting that Wretched Royalty are unable to access the crossbow or the zweihander, which are results 9 and 10 on the weapons table respectively). I’m also told to roll a d4 on the armour table, rerolling if I receive heavy armour (why not make it a d3 roll, Mӧrk Bӧrg?). I guess Grin wasn’t royalty after all, since they have heavy armour. Anyway, this character ends up with light armour (fur, padded, cloth, etc) after having to reroll twice.
Then we’re given a list and told that we begin with two items from it. It’s not explicit that we should roll, but each entry is numbered from 1-6 and it seems in keeping with the way the rest of character creation works to randomise it. I end up with “Poltroon” the Court Jester, who accompanies me on my adventures and distracts enemies in combat, and the Horn of Schleswig Lords, which I can blow in to bolster my companions and make them succeed at tasks they might otherwise fail. That’s pretty good.
There’s also a roll table scrawled down the side of the page titled, “Things were going so well, until…”. Rolling on it I find that my caravan kingdom of Tveland fell into penury. This is what I was missing from the classless character creation – something to tie me to the world in a concrete way.
The next step is to roll on the tables on pages 39-43. These are tables of traits, traumas, and history – things to flesh out your character and give them some life. There’s nothing telling us we can’t use them when we generate characters without the optional classes, but similarly there’s nothing saying that we should and that’s why I didn’t touch them when we were making Grin.
On the first table, Terrible Traits, we roll 2d20. My character has a loud mouth and is prone to substance abuse. The Broken Bodies table tells me that I’m corpulent, ravenous, and drooling – which ties in nicely to the substance abuse, and the overall theme of Wretched Royalty. I’ve lost myself to excess in response to losing my ancestral seat. The Bad Habits table tells me that I’m a pyromaniac. And, after throwing a knife at page 43, I learn that my flesh heals twice as fast, but my companions twice as slow, and that I see a many-eyed “guardian angel”.
This is not a nice person to be around.
I also realise that I need a name, so I turn to the front cover again and learn that this disgusting, fallen monarch is called Arvent. And that’s my second character done.
All told, it took less than hour to create both of these characters while writing this post. Grin would have taken 5 minutes on their own. Arvent would have taken a little longer – maybe 10 minutes, since there was a bit of flicking back and forth in the book and finding the right pages for things.
It’s interesting that the classes have very little mechanical effect in the game. They’re a collection of thematic trinkets and hooks to the world, and they change the way you generate your abilities and equipment to make things slightly more fitting to your role. One of the potential things the Wretched Royal can start with is a talking horse, which is ludicrous and incredible.
Whereas my Spire character felt anachronistic to my expectations of the world, both Grin and Arvent definitely met my expectations for what a Mӧrk Bӧrg character looks like. I’m a little disappointed that my random rolls generated two such similar characters thematically, but that’s not a problem with the game. In fact, the theme of fallen nobility was something I attached to Grin myself as a result of my interpretation of the equipment they started with.
Of the two systems I’ve played around with so far, Mӧrk Bӧrg’s character creation definitely suits my preferences as a gamer more than Spire (even though Spire is a game I thoroughly enjoyed playing and shares a lot in common with Blades in the Dark, which is one of my favourite games).
Next week I’m going to play with a system I know nothing about as I roll up a character in Burning Wheel.
This past 12 months has seen a surge in the popularity of solo games (something I’ve very happily benefited from). I haven’t written anything on this blog in a while – not since I finished writing trinkets for all of the sets of starting equipment in the dragon game – and I’ve been looking for a new reason to do small bits of writing that I don’t try to make money from.
The current Bundle of Holding is for Classic Traveller, and last week I picked them up and ended up playing through the character creation mini game in a Twitter thread. I really enjoyed the emergent storytelling that came out of that lifepath system, and I felt like it taught me a lot about what kinds of stories Traveller is meant to tell.
So I thought fuck it, why not turn character creation into a series of blog posts? At least until I get bored of it or forget that I was meant to be doing it. I’ve got a ton of games that I probably won’t get a chance to play any time soon and the books are simply gathering dust on my shelves, so I can at least crack them open to roll up a character. And then I can write about it, maybe.
These aren’t reviews. They’re a look at the first part of a game that players engage with, annotated with my thoughts as I’m going through the process. Since I’m writing this introduction before I’ve actually done the thing I don’t know whether these posts are going to be worth reading, whether anything will come of them, what kinds of conclusions (if any) I’m going to draw, etc. I imagine the format will refine itself as I go along and I’ll have more interesting things to say as I engage with more systems and am able to draw comparisons.
We’ll see how it goes I guess.
I also couldn’t figure out what to call this series. Cat Evans suggested Naming The Faceless and it’s better than anything I could come up with so I’m stealing it. Thanks, Cat. (Also you should pick up her Wretched & Alone game Final Girl while I still have copies in stock.)
Today I’m doing Spire by Grant Howitt and Chris Taylor. I picked it first because I’m playing it tonight and need a character. Which goes directly against what I just said about having these games I won’t get a chance to play, but whatever. It’s my blog and I’ll do what I want.
Here’s the pitch for the game:
You are a dark elf. Your home, the towering city of Spire, was occupied by the high elves two hundred years ago. Now, you have joined a secret organisation known as the Ministry, a paramilitary cult with a single aim – to overthrow the cruel high elves and restore the drow as the rightful rulers of the city.
What – or who – will you sacrifice to achieve your aims? Will you evade the attention of the authorities, or end up shot in the street like so many before you?Spire RPG
I know literally nothing else about it other than that. So let’s roll up a character.
The first thing to say is that the character creation rules seemed like they were buried really deep in this book. They’re actually only on page 25, but I think it’s the fact that some of the stuff that came before them wasn’t needed that made it feel like they were further in. I don’t mind having the core rules come before character creation – it’s nice to know what you’re going to be doing in a game and how the numbers work before you make a character (sometimes) – but I don’t need to see equipment lists that span multiple pages, and I don’t need to see things that won’t be relevant until later in the game (like crafting rules, to give a specific example from Spire). That’s only a mild criticism, though – that stuff has to go somewhere, character creation can’t always be the first thing in the book, and figuring out the right place to put character generation rules is often the most difficult part of laying out a rulebook.
Anyway. I’ve found the character creation rules, so let’s get down to it.
The first thing to do is choose my character’s Durance – the 4 year period of indentured servitude that all Drow undergo before play begins. I’m immediately drawn to the Duellist – a prize fighter for an aelfir lord who’s equally at home in a brawl or at a fancy party – the Hunter (I love the idea of hunting prey across the rooftops, that’s very atmospheric), and the Occultist. In most games I play I end up as a melee character of some kind, so I’m going to pick Occultist. Here’s what it says:
You plumbed the depths of arcane knowledge for your master, risking your sanity by poring over forbidden tomes in an effort to unlock the secrets within. You are used to concealing your activities from the authorities and decoding ancient spells.
I note down that I start with +2 Shadow and Occult.
Now we select a class and two Low abilities. If the Durance is what I was doing before I joined the resistance, the Class is what I do now. (Another note on the rulebook here – I would have appreciated a list or a table showing all of the classes with a one-sentence description of what they are, rather than having to flip through them all to figure out what I want my character to be.)
I’m drawn to the Idol (I’m a sucker for a bard and this feels close to it) and also the Vermissian Sage, which is the kind of class I like to see in a game – something that doesn’t really have an analogue in any other games, that is a product of the specific setting that we’re playing in. In the end I choose the Idol. I like the idea that after 4 years of fucking around with weird magic, I’ve come out the other side filled with ideas and a strange means of manifesting them,
With that chosen I write down my Resistances – Silver +1, Mind +1, Reputation +1 – and my Refresh trigger (“Someone feels deeply moved when they witness your art”).
This is where I hit a snag. The Idol class gives access to the Occult domain, which I already have from my Occultist Durance. It’s not clear here whether I should just pick another one myself. I assume I should, since the game seems to want me to have 3 of them. I decide to pick Academia, and I figure I spent a lot of time pulling dusty tomes out of libraries for whichever aelfir bastard I used to work for.
Now for Bonds. The first states that I have a street-level bond with my adoring fans, and asks me to name 3 of them and say what they’re most excited to see next. (Another note – I don’t like it when games ask me to come up with a name without giving me some examples of the kinds of names that exist in the setting.) I do a quick search of the PDF for names and spot an NPC called Quince, and that reminds me of The Eve of St Agnes by Keats, so I name my three adoring luvvies Quince, Plum, and Gourd because I have a Masters degree in English Lit and I’m going to fucking use it, damn it. They’re most excited to see a piece I’ve been teasing for months, a living meat sculpture formed by summoning different bits of demons (do demons exist in this setting? I don’t know) that I smash together in real time into some weird chimera creature, before banishing it again. What could go wrong?
The other bond says, “You have a bond with another PC who you know has feelings for you, even if they wouldn’t admit it. Describe the moment when you knew for definite.” Since I’m making this character on my own I can’t answer that yet, so I’ll figure it out when I get to the table.
Now I have to choose two Low abilities. I pick Incorruptible (“Your mind is crystal, shining and pure, and madness rolls off you and onto others.”) and Majesty (“You become so beautiful that none would dare raise a hand against you”)
The final thing to do is to name my character. Again, I’m struggling with this because I don’t really have any examples of names in the setting (and searching the PDF again didn’t help this time). So I go back to the poem I used earlier, choose the name “Porphyro”, and decide that my character exclusively wears purple. And I’m done.
So, conclusions. The first thing is that when I read the setting and rules before the character creation section, I wasn’t expecting to come out of this with a character quite so fabulous. The mood I got from the rulebook was definitely more Blades In The Dark with drow than anything else, so to end up with a flamboyant artist who people worship was quite a surprise. The character feels fairly anachronistic to the setting, and while I enjoy that in games I know well I’m not sure how it will pan out in a game I’ve never played before. We’ll see.
Maybe the trad gamer in me is showing, but I missed getting to roll dice during character creation. There’s something about random number generation to dictate a character that I really enjoy, and that itch wasn’t scratched here. Choosing backgrounds and classes felt a lot like making a character in the latest edition of the dragon game, and I don’t like making 5e characters. Being asked to pick starting abilities is tough when you don’t know how often they’re going to come up in play or how useful they’re going to be. (I had the same problem with BitD, where I had a lot of fun building a ritual that I have never once used in ~10 sessions of play. But that’s for another day).
This possibly wasn’t the best game to start this series of posts with, but that’s fine. I expect that some games will work really well for this and others just won’t, and I’ll deal with that as it happens.
Next week we’ll do Mӧrk Bӧrg, because I always run that game and never get to play it and I want to roll up some horrible bastards.
Let’s not bury the lede – I’m delighted to announce that Loot The Room is published Batts’ Songbirds in print for the first time in the UK!
Batts is one of my favourite designers who is responsible for some of the most original, thoughtful, and beautiful games I’ve ever played – things like The Wizards and the Wastes, Vultures, and Red Snow have changed the way I think about designing games entirely.
Songbirds is no different. It’s a game that asks the question, “What if knights didn’t slay dragons and instead helped them with their emotional issues?” It’s a fantasy heartbreaker that will actually break your heart, that uses songs to generate adventures and plays like a Diana Wynne Jones book wrung through a lens of Studio Ghibli movies.
I love it, I’m honoured to be bringing it to print, and I hope you’ll love it too. Find out more and pick up your copy here.