We finally – ugh, the slings and arrows of everyday life – managed to kick off our mini-campaign of Fearful Symmetries last night. I’d better not say too much for fear of spoilers.

The heavens shall quake, the earth shall move & shudder & the mountains
With all their woods, the streams & valleys: wail in dismal fear
In the second “night”, the theme of women ruling is discussed but there is an emphasis on how the ability to create constricts them. Humanity is imprisoned by creation, and experience causes great pain…

Vala, or The Four Zoas
William Blake (1797-1807)

Alienist Hauke Greiner (57) and parapsychologist Emily Cheek (34) met Prophet of Albion James William Barnes (?-?) during last night’s session; a survivor, or one might say casualty, of our Bookhounds of London mini-campaign: they were moderately discommoded by finding him addressing the heavens from a box on Speaker’s Corner.

The PCs witnessed the maw of the sky run red, cozened a book scout and dowsed north-north-west from Oxford; Emily found herself upon a throne not of her choosing. Our ignorance of the work of William Blake runs fairly deep but it’s a chance to extemporize, and Innocence brings its own rewards.

Next week: witches. Yes, witches. Loves me some witches.

Here Hauke Greiner – a devoted student of Richard von Krafft-Ebing – practices his skills of Hynopsis. Our group seems disposed to the Pulp flavour of play in Trail of Cthulhu.
The players work out their True Names for the initiation into the Order of the Radcliffe Camera – a scene which turned out to harbour a major surprise.
Hauke and Emily meet the “Prophet of Albion”: they were in some doubt about his holiness and whether or not Crispina had divined the right person at all.




Tore Nielsen, Neal Stidham and Brian Wille did me the great honour of playing Black Dog Dérive over Hangouts last night. Tremendous fun.

Ville Vuorela’s game STALKER: The SciFi Roleplaying Game is available here.




The set-up for the Fearful Symmetries playtest went well. It’s a beast of a document but it turns out to be fairly easy to use: the improvisational approach with plenty of background material suits the way I tend to facilitate games anyway and the guys enjoyed creating their characters.

We’re using the Radcliffe Camera campaign frame from the book; I’ll have to avoid freewheeling with the rules-as-written and I haven’t delved too deeply into the folklore engine as yet, but I find myself easily persuaded by the marriage between William Blake and the Cthulhu Mythos. It helps that Blake’s poetry and Crowley’s system of Magick have so insinuated themselves into the popular imagination: there’s little or no need to get bogged down in prep.

One of us was away this week and another of us is travelling for work the next – but that doesn’t turn out to be too much of a problem either. There’s a touch of Ars Magica to the way Fearful Symmetries suits troupe-style play, magickal rivalries and sudden affiliations. The self-proclaimed “Prophet of Albion” arrives in our game next week… but some of the players don’t know that yet.

Information on the playtest is available here:

Fearful Symmetries



I’m going to an archipelago. I’ve always loved them, whether via maps, by boat or on foot. Here John Clute elucidates their meaning and use in works of science fiction and fantasy:


I’d dearly love to play the roleplaying game of the same name, the third version of which is freely available from Matthijs Holter and Jason Morningstar:




Seven Go Wild in Voivodja

Funny how these things work: you think things are falling a bit flat, particularly after a six-week layoff, and then there are two good ideas in a row and woof! the set-up catches alight.

Seven Dwarves will enter the Place of Unreason in a bid to rescue the sleeping Empress Maudlyn from the Red King:

  • Margäz Princess of the Second Empire; aunt to the torpid Maudlyn.
  • Grimbald Grimson Quartermaster of the expedition to the Dying City.
  • Bûrin Ironhand 325-year-old diplomat of one of the largest Dwarven clans.
  • Anselmo Sheild-bearer to Bûrin Ironhand; good Strength rating.
  • Hildebrand Hasselbeard Slayer Dwarf feared for the impact of her two axes.
  • Morag Blackhand Gunpowder specialist; brace of pistols.
  • Freya Fargazer Astrologer to the Court of the Exiled Dwarves.

Osprey of the Iron Cliffs, an Elf, and Ralmir Herakson, a Cleric and follower of nature god Argan Argar will accompany the Dwarves on account of their expertise in magic. They are doomed. It’s all so delightfully old school.


200 logo

There are three wonderful winners of this year’s 200 Word RPG Challenge:

  • Mechanical Oryx by Grant Howitt
  • Memories by Santiago Eximeno
  • Route Clearance by Andrew Millar

Here are the winners and the finalists:

200 Word RPG Winners

I was a judge this year. I ignored things like word-counts or questions like “Is this really an RPG?” These might have disqualified an entry and I’m not here to impose rules and regulations. I tend to prefer games that marry their gameplay and their theme most effectively: those that can do so in 200 words or fewer earn my respect and appreciation. My favourite of the entries I read in 2016 were Meetings by Jaye Foster, The Vampire’s Kiss by Joanna Piancastelli and The Pope is a Space Lizard by Tobias Strauss.

I selected twenty games I considered possibilities to progress before printing these out and leaving them to sit for a few days; I found that six or seven of the games remained in my memory. Selecting four from these was difficult.

These are the twenty games I considered possibilities to progress from the 174 entries I read in the first round:


This is a well-written and well-conceived game. Playful invective and moral force are combined to convincing effect.

I particularly admire the way in which a beautifully-judged three-act structure communicates the breadth and depth of the game’s theme. This is delivered with clarity and emotional impact.

The fourth and fifth sentences offer up the “insecure” emotional space of the TROLL while allowing the player to distance herself from what she is putting across. The ALL IN CAPS second act accurately depicts the lurid “active-defensive” (as opposed to “passive-aggressive”) dominant feature of Trolldom, while the third act ties-off the angry insecurity of the TROLLS raised in the first act – “write down three physical aspects about which you are insecure… DO NOT draw on your own insecurities” – with a conclusive switch between the shared imagined space of the game – “by the name of [winner’s handle]” – with the real world of those playing: “agree never to speak or write as you have done”.


I like the violence of this one. There can’t be many of us left who believe the old “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” adage.

I also like the cadence of the game: its shape suggests its theme – a common undercurrent in the 200 Word RPGs I admired – by communicating the attributes of a human relationship inside a dramatic moment.

“You must suffer pain or do something to impact the relationship” feels truthful to me, and more than a little tender, like a bruise or a moment of regret; it reveals that the desire to be in the right is in fact the desire to be liked in disguise. I consider this to be an accurate assessment of human nature.

To Alex!

You could play this in the bar, on the train or on a quite Sunday morning, hungover and full of regret. It catches the full extent of a sorrow while retaining a playful and inclusive air; I like the combination of its 6-6-6 structure and its conversational informality. The prompts are good too.

The Town of M

I’m a bit of a sucker for inventive ways to use everyday objects in games & I’d never encountered using sweets as RPG mechanics. I suspect that it might become difficult to “resolve” things without considerable discussion in the middle of the game but that wouldn’t necessarily stop it from being fun. As someone with a pretentious bent, I also read a coded message about corporate responsibility into the fabric of the game.

The Great Work

I’m also a bit of a sucker for Tarot and I think this would be fun, not least because of the ritual of drawing a card in front of the other players and their waiting to hear what the player said about her great work. I’d have preferred to have seen each player interacting with one another’s great works rather than merely describing their own progress during the third act but this is the sort of game I’d probably play more than once, just for the joy of describing the transformation.

One-Night Stand

This may be the perfect subject for a 200 Word RPG: intensity, sex and dramatic misunderstanding, all turned up to eleven in the space of two hundred words.

I love how it includes the truths and delusions of sex and how playful it is about how either truth or delusion might improve the experience or make it worse. The anxiety and expectation of the moment are present too and the game does a good job of communicating how those emotions might transmute into either disappointment or ecstasy. Or both.

There were a few games in my tranche of entries about the pervasive humiliation of the workplace and the following two were the best of those I read:

An American Workplace

It would be easy to write this off as a rewrite of The Office but I think it successfully communicates some of the agony and the necessity of being at work and of the dishonourable conduct it encourages in both bosses and workers. The mechanics are appropriate to the theme but I feel they could have interacted with one another more fruitfully.

Office Party

This accurately represents my experiences in journalism. I also like that it goes straight for the jugular and pulls no punches about the heavy-lidded competition and insecurity of the corporate structure but I think a little dramatic opposition or variation might have improved the play experience: you sort of get what you’re expecting from off.

There were also a few games among my entries with investigative themes and the following two were most interesting of those I read:

My Alibi

This is the kind of theme that relays itself to almost any audience and can be played in almost any context; the UK Freeform scene does this stuff well and I hope purists won’t be too distressed if I remark that I like that it is both a parlour game and an RPG. The mechanics are well-chosen but their descriptions need sharpening up, both in terms of what happens when and to what purpose.

And then there were none

A well-trodden trope once again, but that’s as much a strength as a weakness: the process is clear but the mechanics get a little fuzzier the longer the game goes on and they put the onus on those playing to provide relevant details rather than providing means of revelation. Almost anyone could play this and relish the details of description, I think.

Measured in Cups

Was there another tea-making-and-drinking game out there? A Google search isn’t turning anything up. It’s a great focus for a two-person RPG, particularly one about considering the range of a human friendship. I like the way this draws out the ritual and forces those playing to consider what they’re doing in terms of what they’re saying and vice versa. I’m not sure about “decide together what caused your relationship to fade”. People often have very different ideas about what ended a friendship, particularly after the fact.

Lawsuits & Litigators

This is a game that states its job and does its job with admirable efficiency. You really could drop it into any PBTA game – and perhaps other games too – and watch it create (a) dramatic display and (b) dramatic resolution. The fact that I know I’d hate playing it means that it’s a good game not a bad one.

Jersey Gore: a game for 4 to 6 players

This does a good job of communicating both the sullen and inconsequential narcissism of reality television and some of the reason why people enjoy it so: it is animal behaviour commodified. I might hate it but I’d probably play it anyway because it’s witty and theatrical.

He say you Blade Runner

This is one of the more complete entries I read: I think it really can claim to be a complete game, despite referring to a well-known intellectual property and being part of a bigger whole. It occurs all on one plane of understanding and I’d have like to have seen some examination of the “What is real? What is human?” theme that underpins Philip K Dick’s work.

Good Morning Magicland

This is fun: never underestimate the impact of playability and re-playability. The mechanics are both joyful and workable and framed by a register that everyone understands. It’s one of those games that would either come alive or not and I think in most cases it would.

Flirt Party Aftermath

This has a touch of the Nordic LARPs about it and I think the mechanics suit the theme: I also think that the guidance about what the players write on the index cards needs to be a bit more precise and that the chair-swapping might get a bit confusing. I like the combination of randomisation and solace.

Fatimah’s Busy Day

Beautiful set-up for a game: “anthropomorphic burqa” is a masterclass in domesticating something that has been mistrusted, and perhaps demonised, by certain forms of Western discourse. The phenomenology of what Fatimah sees and hears and chooses is great too and I love the dramatization of the relationship between Fatimah’s inner world and her outer reality. I also admire the way the author has put the larger truths front and centre without being heavy-handed. I did wonder if everyone taking part should get a go at playing Fatimah, as some of the truth of those experiences may be more evident to the person playing Fatimah than to everyone else.


The doginess is strong in this one: I almost feel the game bounded up to me and playfully humped my leg into submission. What’s worse, I liked it. I could play this over and over with the right gaggle of young people; perhaps the same would be true of playing with the appropriate pack of dogs.

Ghost Estate

This had the best language of any of the entries I read: it’s deceptively playful while actually managing to relay quite a bit of the political register and history of the Irish ghost story. People tend to “misunderestimate” the point of combining terror and humour. Phrases like “SPOOKY” and “NOGGIN” and “wheelie based messianism” made me laugh and sufficiently lowered my defences to give me a moment’s pause about the impact of English colonialism on Ireland.

Stop Reading to Lose

This was the most original of the games I read. I love the way it encourages and then complicates the combination of the external and the internal consciousness of the person playing. The decision to leave vast stretches of space between its pieces of text is pretty great too: this uses the physical constraints of the 200 Word RPG Challenge (no formatting, no illustrations, all plain text and so on) to inform its theme and the dislocated-but-intense feelings it wants to create in the player.

Perhaps the distances between the pieces of text might be varied to better reflect the shifts between descriptive and transformative pieces of narration: there are a couple of points where it feels like the game should shift gear but doesn’t. Some element of the player’s “real” environment might be included at the game’s beginning to assist in its claustrophobic intensity – but these are quibbles, really. Using a short form to render the simultaneous vastness of inner and outer space realizes a major characteristic of science fiction.

Call them game-poems, nano-games or what you will but I’m a big fan of short-form roleplaying games and it struck me that this, the third year of the 200 Word RPG Challenge, had fostered a surprising number of entries that felt thematically-complete. Offering those playing the chance to enact some fairly complex concepts and experiences conveys greater emotional impact than mere performance or consumption, and sometimes in the space of a few minutes or half an hour.

Issue 2

Jarry_velo (3)

“Imagine the perplexity of a man outside time and space, who has lost his watch, his measuring rod and his tuning fork.”

Alfred Jarry
Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustrall Pataphysician

Issue 2 of Machineries of Joy is dedicated to the Nørwegian Surreal and includes contributions from:

Colin Beaver
Elizabeth Lovegrove
Jeanette McCulloch
John Rose
Matthijs Holter
Ole Peder Giæver
Ralph Lovegrove
Steve Dempsey
Tore Nielsen

Here is the PDF:

Nørwegian Surreal

Creative Agenda

Social media has turned into a game of dodge the 200 Word RPG Challenge entry, so I haven’t been online quite as much. Judging begins on April 26th (Wednesday), so I’ll probably release Issue 2 of Machineries of Joy on Monday or Tuesday. It’s on roleplaying games from the Nørwegian Surreal and includes work from the following array of wonderful people:

Colin Beaver
Elizabeth Lovegrove
Jeanette McCulloch
John Rose
Matthijs Holter
Ole Peder Giæver
Ralph Lovegrove
Steve Dempsey
Tore Nielsen

City of Eyes
“City of Eyes” by John Rose

Character Sheet Version 6 Image

Paris Below

We had a great time with Trail of Cthulhu: the game will probably be the focus of a future issue of Machineries of Joy.

Our Dreamhounds of Paris campaign ended with two of the player-characters living as debased and cannibalistic ghouls in the catacombs of Paris and with the other being rejected by the Lakhota heritage that had been the centre of his existence. Still, they did manage to defeat Sex Hitler.

Last night was one of those sessions where the inclusion of the Itras By chance cards worked really well: it’s all about timing and punctuation, really, and the guys aced their moments of narrative.

I pitched Night Witches hard – I really want to play that game – but I don’t think it’s going to happen soon. Same with Lovecraftesque: two of us interested; two of us less so. A Red & Pleasant Land is likely to be next, but not for at least a month or so. Real life is being demanding right now.


Space Monkey drew the card “Nemesis!” when Cody (played by Luke) tried to re-establish contact with his Lakhota ancestors. Oops.