Giant, beetle-like Aliens dubbed “Scarabs” destroy earth’s twelve most populous Cities in the autumn of 1951, fortifying the impact of their Invasion by use of superior Weapons and Technology to bring much of humanity into conditions of Slavery. As with the invaders from Mars in H G Wells‘s War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson’s1898), the Scarabs have been observing the planet for some time, and have scheduled their arrival to occur at precisely the point between planetary depletion from War and developments in Nuclear Energy. Nigel Kneale-scripted dramas such as The Quatermass Experiment (18 July-22 August 1953 6 episodes) and Quatermass and the Pit (1968; vt Five Million Years to Earth) direct Starfall‘s comprehension of the thematic link between humanity’s predisposition to fascistic behaviour [see “Nigel Kneale and Fascism” under links below] and the suitability of planet earth as a target for the Colonization of Other Worlds:-


Starfall entry

Age of Anarchy

Age of Anarchy by Paul Mitchener and Ryan M Danks is on Kickstarter. It updates the traditional structure of a roleplaying game by offering its players the means to affect historical events while allowing the Gamemaster (GM) to preserve their overall logic of sense. This makes it very well suited to a medieval mini-campaign in which player investment and decision-making engage with random factors to make the “one bloody thing after another” school of history feel fresh and alive.

The crucial factor is the relationship between the player-characters (PCs) and their Patron; in the case of our four-session playtest, this was Emma de Gernon, niece of Ranulf de Gernon, Earl of Chester, much doubted by her lordly neighbours on account of her gender and inexperience. Players introduced issues for the Patron, one of which formed the basis of the mission in any particular session; a six-sided die was rolled for any one issue left unresolved at the end of a session to decide whether or not it would “blow up” in the faces of Emma and the PCs. One never quite knew which result to hope for: it’s fun when things go horribly wrong but our progress was linked inextricably to that of our Lady.

It’s an elegant way of solving (a) the relationship of the PCs’ motives to the unfolding of events and (b) the relationship of the unfolding of events to the already-told story of what happened when competing Norman monarchs fought for control over twelfth-century England. As with Paul Mitchener’s game Starfall, Age of Anarchy is well-researched, lightly mechanised and judiciously-balanced between the input of the players and the reaction of the GM to their decisions. Those looking for the old-school crunch of medieval fantasy or the player-directed narrative of a pure story-game may find it too lightly mechanised but for me it’s pretty much spot-on: everyone knows where they stand in relationship to the history and to each other and yet anything can happen.

Chroniclers described the period as one in which “Christ and his saints were asleep”. Will you will wake them? Or will you declare for Stephen or Matilda?



Sacred Cow

10 years old and out from under its parent’s wing: Neil Smith announced that this, the 21st Concrete Cow, would be the last he organised and that Amy would take the reins from now on. I’ve only been to the last two but I’ve the very strong impression he’s done a great job. Amy shows every sign of the same enthusiasm and generosity of spirit.

I offered Starfall by Paul Mitchener in the morning slot and I just about held it together: I’ve not run a game with six players before. The players – God bless ‘em, one and all – succeeded in their mission to take out the Strategist but Captain Howard Fairbright, poor chap, ended the game as a Quisling… under the control of Double Agent “Knees-Up” Mother Braun.

I played Lighthugger – an iteration of The Next Big Thing – by James Mullen in the afternoon slot and learned a lot from watching James facilitate the game. He had a very deft touch and managed to persuade the players to supply the logic of sense for the story by raising the stakes in the endgame.

I can’t recommend this convention highly enough. Concrete Cow 16 ½ is on September 10th of this year.

Art in the main image is by Jonny Gray

Concrete Cow 16

Concrete Cow gaming convention is in Wolverton, near Milton Keynes, this coming Saturday, 12th of March. Games on offer include the following:-

  • New Gods for an Old Town (Apocalypse World, Just Heroes hack)
  • Chap with the Wings, Five Rounds Rapid (Starfall)
  • Lighthugger (The Next Big Thing)
  • Titan’s Wake (Symbaroum)
  • Dark Predators (The Code of Shōjo and Shōnen)
  • Deadpool saves the Fantastic Four (Manifold Superheroes)
  • Flight into Oblivion (Manifold Horror)
  • Newtown (Story Game)
  • Training Day (The Laundry)
  • Blackhearts (Dead of Night)
  • Traveller: Hard Times (Story Game)
  • The Hanging Tree (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
  • Monster of the Week (Apocalypse World)
  • But is it Art? (Pulp Cthulhu)
  • Green Fields and Paydata (Shadowrun, 3rd Edition)
  • The Void Citadel of House Vervain (Dramasystem)
  • Rinden Snarls (Tenra Bansho Zero, Ruined Empire)
  • The War in Crow’s Foot (Blades in the Dark)
  • Ad Astra Per Aspera (Cthulhu Dark)
  • Fish Squad vs Megashark (HeroQuest: 2.1)
  • On the Discovery of Witches (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
  • Cadenza (World War Cthulhu: Cold War)
  • The Queer & Deadly Town of Sorrowset (D&D, The Black Hack)

Do come along if you can. People from London’s Indiemeet are meeting at Euston station at 07.40am onwards to catch the 08.10am train to Wolverton:-

This is the game I’m offering:-

Starfall Pitch Sheet 2


Going, Going, Gone

Sometimes it’s the first nuclear detonation, sometimes the first spaceship to break the earth’s atmosphere. Everything from HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) to 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still dramatizes this moment: technological static has attracted the attention of aliens and they have come to punish humankind.

The aliens, of course, are a reflection of our own existential dread: what are we doing to ourselves? Where Wells used The War of the Worlds to amplify his anxieties about colonialism, The Day the Earth Stood Still was made in the wake of the Second World War, just as the boom in popular science fiction was taking shape. These kinds of stories allow us to address the world-sized concerns we ignore in our everyday lives.

Recent depictions of alien invasions in films and roleplaying games have tended toward either end of the scale between spectacular and spooky: I like those that combine both. War and the despoliation of the planet inform the tropes of these narratives but so does the relationship between human and animal life. If our existence is evolutionary in scale, how can it be any more than a fight for survival?

Brazilian science fiction game UED: You Are the Resistance – written by Julio Matos and Fabiano Saccol and now available in an English translation by Tom McGrenery – uses a diminishing dice pool to heighten the relationship between threat of the robot invaders and the human propensity to scarcity: every time a character rolls a die, she sets it aside. Once the resources the dice represent are gone, they’re gone. Every human action has a larger consequence.

British science fiction game Starfall – written by Paul Mitchener from a version of the Wordplay game engine by Graham Spearing – sets the alien invasion shortly after World War II, consciously off-setting well-chosen nuggets of historical research against the classic films of the period, such as Them! and Quatermass and the Pit:-

The only sign that something was horribly wrong was the blue tint to the sun that was visible at dawn. Meteorologists explained that this was due to particles in the atmosphere from extensive forest fires in Canada that summer. They were incorrect. On September 28th 1951, the world ended.

That day, devastating explosions destroyed the twelve most populous cities in the world. Then the aliens came — the giant beetle-like Scarabs. They came, and conquered, enslaving and destroying.

Art by Jonny Gray

I’m not ordinarily a fan of huge pools of dice – ironic for a guy who wargames every week – but I like the way Wordplay links the size of its dice-pools to the interrelationship of narratively tagged ‘Traits’, not altogether dissimilar to those used to define Aspects in FATE.

Your hand of six-sided dice starts with a Foundation Trait – Obsessed Scientist (6d), say – and may be supported by one third of the dice in two Supporting Traits, rounded down. In this case, Physics at 5d might add +1d, and Fascinated by Scarab Technology (3d) might add another +1d.

Someone assisting you can add one third of their dice in a single Trait. The pool of 8 dice could, for instance, be augmented by someone adding +1d from their Trait Eye for Detail (3d). Bonuses for equipment, such as Electron Microscope +2d, can be added in their entirety, here granting an overall pool of eleven dice with which to attempt the task.

Each die showing a 4 or 5 counts as one success, while each die showing 6 counts as two successes. These are rolled against a pool of dice set by the difficulty of the task, or by an opponent’s own combination of Traits – Observe Scarab Virus (9d), for example.

It seems like a lot of adding and subtracting but it’s fairly intuitive in play and allows players to come up with creative ways to include their Traits. This fuels the drama and the detail of events.

The book also includes some crisp and well-researched observations on the socio-political make-up of 1950s Britain, a gazetteer of the effects of the Scarab invasion on the world, and, my personal favourite, two separate chapters on the ways in which Scarab physiology and society reflects and is different from human and animal life on earth. There are also pre-generated characters, scenario seeds and a complete scenario, Angel of Berlin. The whole is clear and concise and easy to use.

The idea of alien invasion has a long and meaningful literary heritage, one which in my view has until now been better served by audio-visual adaptations such as War of the Worlds and District 9 than by roleplaying games. Starfall evokes the human scale of the planetary catastrophe.