LRP Moments: Death By Clown

Somebody recently suggested that I should try writing up some live roleplay (LRP) memories. I’m wary because what’s dramatic or funny in the moment may not always work in the retelling. But it worked when I wrote up New Pathways in Lycanthropy, so I’m going to give it a go here. Who knows, maybe this will end up as a regular thing…

* * *

It’s late at night in the market field. Overhead, an occasional star peaks through the clouds. My name is Hereward Saxum, a miner from an isolated community that recently discovered the fantastical world of Edreja. Today I’ve seen magical clowns, unliving monsters, and speeches by the most powerful people in my world.

The market field is almost empty as Father Candle and I walk across it, heading for the tavern tent. Candle is our community’s high priest, an old man with little more than a dagger to defend himself. We know there’s trouble out here in the darkness – hit squads hunting each other through the night, monsters looking for prey in civilization’s shadows. But a quick trip to the tavern should be fine, right?

Someone walks towards us through the darkness. I rest my hand on my sword hilt. I didn’t bring my armour or shield, didn’t think I’d need them. Hopefully, I won’t, but you can never be sure in this place at night.

There’s a jingling of bells. I make out the pointed shape of a jester’s hat. The stranger is one of the sinister clowns that stalk the local carnival. I’ve seen them around all day in their bright motley, laughing, prancing, and occasionally assaulting people. They aren’t mere mortal jesters. They’re magical beings who could take on a dozen heroes single-handed.

“Don’t worry,” I say. “I saw a trick earlier for how to deal with this.”

I face the clown.

“This rabbit walks into a butcher’s,” I begin.

That afternoon, I’d seen someone stop a clown in its tracks just by telling a joke. The deadly jester had burst out laughing, all thoughts of homicide forgotten. And this rabbit joke is one of my favourites.

“Hereward,” Candle says, “I don’t think that will work.”

The clown keeps striding towards me. It’s pulled out a wickedly sharp knife that glows with magic in the darkness.

Sure of myself, I keep telling the joke.

“Hereward,” Candle says. “We should run now.”

I keep going, a little less certainly than before. The other clown had started laughing by now.

The creature raises its knife.

“Hereward,” Candle says, backing away. “It’s the wrong sort of clown.”

I try to draw my sword but it’s too late. There’s a flurry of blows and I fall to the ground. The clown crouches over me and starts cracking open my skull, ready to eat my brain.

In my last dying moments, I see Candle stride up behind the clown and stab it in the back. My friend has come to my rescue!

There’s a flash of magic and Candle’s blows are turned back against him. He falls next to me, the life running from his body.

The clown giggles in the darkness.

Wrong sort of clown.

* * *

Out of character, I look up into the face of our friend Dave, who’s running this encounter. It takes ten minutes to die in game, and he has a stopwatch in his hand.

“You idiots,” he says, shaking his head.

Al and I look at each other and laugh sheepishly. This is a tough break for Hereward and Candle, and one of the dumbest things we’ve ever done, but at least it’s a memorable night.

Brainstorming with Other People’s Brains

sea-680169_1280Sometimes four heads are better than one. So to help me with world building for a future writing project, I’ve roped in some of my friends. Not just by asking them questions, but by giving them a chance to explore and add to my world.

To do this, I’ve started running an occasional roleplay campaign in the world I’m building. I’m using Fate, which is designed to let players add to the world, rather than having everything defined by the games master. And I have to say, it’s working nicely. I brought in a particularly imaginative group, who’ve started adding rich detail to the world I’m creating. Because they aren’t working from the same inspirations I am, they’ve taken parts of the setting in new directions, making them less obviously reflections of the history and mythology I’m stealing from. The result is something more interesting and original.

One thing I hadn’t expected, but that’s very helpful, is that they’re pointing out which parts of the world are most interesting. Obviously, this is just a small sample, but it helps me to see what readers will be intrigued by, and what needs fleshing out more.

I  think this is going to add a lot to my world. I know it’s not a new technique – plenty of fantasy novels draw on the authors’ roleplay games – but it’s definitely a fun one, and a great way of reaching past the limits of my own imagination.

Understanding Yourself Through Games

Following some dice rolling and deep reflection, Elmo decided to play a were-human.
Following some dice rolling and deep reflection, Elmo decided to play a were-human.

I’m a big fan of games. Board games, card games, roleplay games, even the occasional computer game. Games are awesome.

I’ve long thought that games are an under-appreciated part of our culture. Even as fans, we sometimes talk about them as something childish or nerdy. In reality, games can be produced as skillfully and become as thought-provoking as any other part of human culture. Minecraft is a near-limitless tool for education. Profound Decisions create live roleplay of incredible immersion and complexity. The Battlestar Galactica board game captured the spirit of that show perfectly, with its atmosphere of boisterous paranoia.

I hadn’t thought much about how games let us explore our own personalities. That changed for me recently, when I attended Dungeons of Yendor, a one-day game run by Pennine Megagames. This was a sort of giant board game for a hundred or so players, involving diplomacy, war, trade, trickery, and ancient secrets hidden in the darkness beneath a fantasy world. It was an impressive achievement, and the people playing had a lot of fun.

Here’s the thing though – I played it wrong. Not wrong for the game, but wrong for me. I did what I often do in large multi-player games and took on a small leadership role, organising the vanguard of a military expedition. This left me organising supplies, trying to see to the needs of others, and generally doing a lot of stuff that, while potentially satisfying, was actually more stress than fun.

When I stopped to think about it afterwards, I realised that I often do this, and not just in games. I take on responsibilities because I feel like I ought to, rather than because I’ll enjoy them, and I don’t even notice that I’m doing it. It’s killed my enjoyment of hobbies and jobs on many occasions. The open systems of the megagame gave me space to do that, and time afterwards let me see my mistake. I’d have had a lot more fun if I’d just thought about what I enjoy and done that.

Few other forms of culture engage us so actively as games. This makes me wonder if they create a unique opportunity for us to act out our subconscious impulses in a contained space, and so to gain insight into who we are. It certainly seems to work for me.

Fate Aspects – Stealing Story-Telling Tools from an RPG

Fate-Core-CoverEvoking place isn’t always easy in fiction. You can get hung up on the details at the expense of the overall image, or not show enough to make the place distinctive. Based on the recommendation of another writer, I’ve been thinking about how to use tools from the Fate roleplaying game to do this better.

Fate is a tabletop role-playing game, like Dungeons and Dragons or GURPS, except that it’s very different from those two. It turns the game into an act of collaborative storytelling, with more description and cooperation in place of the turn-taking adventures and numbers-based mechanics of many RPGs.

Fate is built around aspects – words and phrases that describe characters, places, objects, and events. A character might have aspects such as “Owes Jo his life” or “Master swordsman”, and if they can show how these are relevant to the story they gain an advantage. Similarly, places can have aspects, things like “noisy”, “dilapidated”, or “owned by the Triad”, just two or three aspects that get to the essence of the place.

I’m starting to use this as a way of thinking about places in stories. If when I’m first defining a place I decide that its aspects are “made of ancient oak” and “full of tribbles”, that tells me a lot without a great deal of planning. I can then use descriptive details to evoke those aspects, and as long as I don’t contradict myself in the details, I’m likely to create a place that is evocative but not bogged down in minutiae. The aspects also give me something to go back to whenever I need to add a new detail. Doors are made of more ancient wood, and the nails holding them together must be equally old, rust spreading from them to stain the wood. When a character opens a previously unexplored cupboard, tribbles will probably fall out. Maybe dead tribbles that have been left in that ancient space too long. If there are insects here, maybe they’re oak-boring worms or fleas living on tribbles.

I’m not saying that this is the ultimate solution to getting setting right, but for now it’s helping me.

Aspects: luxurious, deserted, secret naughty stains - it's all connected.
Aspects: luxurious, deserted, secret naughty stains – it’s all connected.

4 Podcasts to Delight Your Geeky Ears

You know what’s almost as good as reading? Listening. Sometimes it’s even better – after all, reading while driving is a recipe for disaster. And in the age of the podcast, you don’t even have to rely on radio schedules for what was once the rarest of treats – an audio program to entertain nerds.

A whole bunch of people I know and admire now make podcasts, so here are four recommendations, things I’m not involved with but love listening to.

breaking-glass-slipper-logo-620x330Breaking the Glass Slipper

Featuring writers Charlotte Bond, Lucy Hounsom and Megan Leigh, Breaking the Glass Slipper is a literary podcast discussing women in science fiction and fantasy. The first episode was an interesting discussion of why female authors feature so seldom in “best of” lists. If you enjoy intelligent discussion of sf+f, and in particular if you’ve been following recent debates about representation in fandom, then this one is for you.

cdsCrudely Drawn Swords

Many of the most entertaining weekends I’ve ever had were spent live roleplaying with a group of hilariously surreal and outlandish gamers. Now some of them have put together Crudely Drawn Swords, in which we follow the adventures of four mismatched heroes trying to save the kingdom. There’s Enigma (Ali), the hipster rogue; Tristan (Stu), the bloodthirsty bard; Bambari (Mags), a mage with a pet rock; and Sir Percival (Gwyn), their heroic leader, trying not to laugh at inappropriate moments. Gamesmastered and produced by Ben Moxon, it’s a story of good intentions and bad puns, using the Dungeon World roleplay system and some of the most entertaining people I know.

The Learning Clifflc

I find  Eve Online endlessly fascinating. It’s a galaxy-spanning online computer game of massive space fleets and interplanetary industry, so complex and with so many players that academics have used it to gain insight into real economic and social trends. Sadly, I don’t have the time or patience to play it myself. Fortunately, I have people who play it for me, and for anyone else who wants to learn about the game or give it a try. Nick, an experienced player, talks new player Will through the Eve gaming experience week by week, while Will asks important questions like “how do I get a clone?”, “why are people shooting at me?” and “why don’t these spaceships make any sense?” From mining colonies to art installations made of corpses, imaginary space is a weird place.

played upPlayed Up

This one’s less purely nerdy, but should still appeal. The RH Experience are an improvisational comedy group, featuring my friend Dan on guitar. Every week on their show Played Up they invite a guest to join them and share a selection of their favourite tapes. Except that the tapes aren’t real, the music on them is imaginary, and the RH Experience have to make it up. Prepare for some strange and hilarious listening.


Any Other Recommendations?

There you go – four podcasts I think you might enjoy. If you have some other recommendations then please leave them below.

Also, I’m thinking of podcasting my Friday flash stories, so if that’s something you’d listen to then let me know that too.No promises, but it’s something I’m seriously considering.

Dead Detectives and Exponential Complexity

Picture by paurian via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by paurian via Flickr Creative Commons

I’ve been writing a murder mystery dinner party. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this, but it is the first time I’ve created one with so many player suspects. It’s been a real eye opener on the exponential effect of adding complexity to stories.

There are a dozen characters in this game, plus the victim, who doesn’t get played. When I write this sort of murder mystery game, I create various details for each character – three secrets, three resources to influence other people, three aims for the evening, and two relationships with each other character – the relationship the others see, and the secret relationship behind that. These details are there to ensure that no-one is ever bored and to create the haze of suspicions and red herrings through which the players try to identify the murderer.

You can probably see already why doubling the number of players doesn’t just double the complexity. Every new character has to have relationships with each other character, and that creates an exponential growth in relationships. As a creative exercise they’re a lot of fun to create, but it’s also taxing – there’s a lot to think about, and each time I’m adding a detail I have to work out how it connects up with the rest.

In a way, this applies when writing stories, and in another way it doesn’t. Each detail you add – a person, a place, an event – has the potential to interact with everything else, so the growth in potential is exponential. But you control the narrative, including which things interact, and so you can avoid defining all those interactions – something I can’t do with a murder mystery game.

The problem comes if you’re too controlled. There might be interactions readers will look at and go “what about those two characters? surely they would have talked about x?” You don’t want to look at all those interactions, but the more of them could exist, the more holes can be picked. The potential to miss something important grows exponentially.

So if you want to write about five ideas, and you don’t want to spend a long time writing about them, is it better to split them into two stories than to roll them all into one, dealing with all their interactions?

Maybe. I’m not totally sure. I’m still thinking through the implications. What do you reckon?


If you’re interested in commissioning a murder mystery party, you can find the details here. And remember, my new book A Mosaic of Stars, collecting together over a year’s worth of weekly short stories, is available for pre-order as a Kindle e-book now.

R. A. Smith On Conflict in Games and Stories

Back in May, I heard fellow fantasy writer R A Smith talk about conflict in games and stories at Nerd East in Durham. Here are a few notes from that talk – really more of a relaxed chat with the audience – that I found useful:

  • The protagonist is either the lens for the trouble around them or, more often, the person going out and causing the trouble.
  • They never start by just wandering the world, their intentions just a blank sheet – they need to have an objective.
  • When talking about conflict in roleplay games we often start by thinking about fighting, as that’s what the characters are statted for.
  • Jim Butcher writes good blog posts on writing. He recommends focusing on the story question – what’s the book about? what’s driving the main plot?
  • When it happens, fighting should progress the story in some way.
  • How characters behave in a fight shows their personality – for example, do they disregard civilians?
  • Character and anticipation are important. This is why professional wrestling is successful – the draw is the soap opera element that makes fans anticipate each match in advance.
  • The Princess Bride has great storytelling fight scenes – for example the early fight between Wesley and Inigo Montoya, showing their motivations and styles.

If that’s given you a taste for more from R. A. Smith, the first two books in his Grenshall Manor Chronicles are out now, starting with Oblivion Storm. And if you’d like to see what I do with conflict, my collection of short fantasy stories By Sword, Stave or Stylus is still free on the Kindle until the end of today.

Geek music 2

No sooner had I posted last Saturday’s geek music selection than I remembered some great songs I’d forgotten. To remedy that situation, and to include some tracks other people have recommended, here’s a second batch of geek music.

I’m sure there’s plenty more great stuff that I’m missing, so if you’ve got any suggestions please pop them in the comments below.

In the Garage by Weezer – the ultimate homage to having your own geek space:



Twelve Sided Dice by Dream Warriors – from the people who brought you the classic ‘Wash Your Face In My Sink’, a tribute to the joys of tabletop roleplay:



Game Store Girl by Beefy – as recommended by Dizz, a nerdy romance song:



Geekquilibrium by Dr Awkward – another recommendation from Dizz, jammed full of geek culture references and with some clever rhymes:



Lannista’s Paradise by The Sons of Mim – shown to me by fellow author Charlotte Bond, Coolio meets Game of Thrones with amusing results:



Cup Of Brown Joy by Professor Elemental – slightly off topic, but I couldn’t resist including this impeccable tribute to the joys of tea: