Bill Heron: Gaming in Edinburgh and other RPG stuff


Archive & Ideas Dumpster

This is where I shove the random ideas I’ve had, projects that were ultimately dumped, and schemes that never came to fruition!


At one point, a friend (Dave Westwater) and I formed a Play-By-Mail games partnership, called Nova Games. This lasted for several years, but the two of us found that it was getting harder and harder to manage that and our regular jobs. We created a number of Play-By-Mail games.


2 halves was a football (soccer) management simulation run as part of Nova Games. Created by Dave Westwater, this ran successfully for some years, written in C and running on an Amiga! I did most of the graphic design work and helped out, and it was a nice little earner for a while, until Dave’s computer packed in.


RPG of knightly chivalry inspired by the Pendragon RPG and Arthurian legend. This PBM was Dave’s hand-moderated (i.e. no computer automation) game, run as part of Nova Games.


The Milenya Chronicles were to be a large computer-moderated series of epic games where players could run characters like Dragons, powerful wizards, city overlords and the like (nowadays this would be very much like an MMORPG, or World of Warcraft), developed as part of Nova Games.Originally four games were planned as part of Nova Games:

  • Blood & Fire, where you play a Dragon
  • Blood & Steel, you take the role of a warlord
  • Blood & Honour, you become a heroic knight and warrior
  • Blood & Mana, you are a master of the arcane arts, a wizard and mage.

Dave and I had a number of games planned, all of which would merge together. It was ambitious – too ambitious – we managed a playtest of the Dragon game, Blood & Fire, but it became clear that the complexity was beyond us at that time. Some of the prose was pretty purple too, as you can see below.

Here’s the blurb from the old Nova Games website (the vortex was created by Jason Paul Macartan of MindShift Design):

Where are you? What happened? Clouds of blue green mist swirl around you as you try to make sense of where you are, and more to the point, who you are. Then you hear it. A cold, but eerily beautiful voice that echoes down deep into your very soul.

Greetings, my friend. Thou hast journeyed far through the Æther. I sense that thou wilt travel farther still before thy journey is complete. Thou seeks knowledge? Of what is to be? Ah, but the key to the portal of knowledge lies in the past. See, already the Æther knows thou. Tarry a while. Time means little here, for we are the Milenya, and thou may be the One to assist us in what is to come.

“From the Milenya came the Realms of Life. From these Realms of Life, the Milenya created the Worlds. Lost in the joy of their creation of the Realms, the Milenya became careless and less vigilant. In their celebrations of creation, they attracted an Evil from within the Void. For It the Realms of Life offered a gateway – an escape. It issued from whence It had been imprisoned since time began, and had consumed entire Realms of Life in its unending, insatiable hunger.

“Shocked at what had been wrought, the Milenya resolved to forever keep It locked away using their very beings. Their energies formed the walls of the prison, giving up their existence to the perpetuation of creation. Their light shines still upon the Worlds of their creation. Timeless and eternal, the Milenya look upon their creation from their starry prison with sorrowful eyes. One by one their glory fades from the Void.

“Follow thy destiny, traveller, for thou art part of what is to be. What is to happen is yet to be Chronicled. Whatever path thou chooseth, and whatever manifestation, follow thy heart. To thineself be true.”

The voice is gone. You suddenly have the feeling of complete solitude. The blue-green mist called the Æther, curls around, caressing your face. Its touch brings knowledge. Swirling away from you, it illuminates a world, shining like a jewel in the night, and you are carried inexorably towards it. The sense of loneliness disappears, as you somehow recall the name of the world.


As you travel towards it, you are changed. Into what can only be guessed at. At your approach, a shadow falls upon the world, extinguishing the light. And in the Void something laughs… and waits…

Welcome to the world of THE MILENYA CHRONICLES

In most games you begin the game weak and defenceless – but not these ones! Unlike many other generic fantasy games, you’ll need far more than a magic sword or fireball spell to defeat your opponents in our world. Raw cunning and skills in diplomacy are ranked particularly highly on the list of requirements to survive, but a little prayer to Lady Luck may help more than you think.

The Milenya Chronicles are our inter-linked series of games set in the mystical land of Darcosia. These games are a new concept for PBM games, and our intention is to bring the great fantasy epics to life. The Milenya Chronicles offer you the chance to play incredibly powerful entities, all with their own goals. We challenge you to come up with any other PBM game that allows you to play Dragons, Wizards, Warlords or Knights within the same game. Picture this:

Another player attacked your city with his army last Turn. You’ve called on a few favours with some of your player allies. Now, a Dragon, a Mage, two Knights, and three armies are out to teach your would-be attacker a lesson he will never forget. And in the background, your politicians are already at work, negotiating with mercenaries and your opponents enemies.

So, behold the world of Darcosia and plunge straight in at the deep end. Cutting-edge technology and Artificial Intelligence brings the world to life. Each being has its own distinctive personality – their own abilities to love, hate, plot, hoard and even breed. On Darcosia, attacking that small band of goblins could be a BIG mistake. They may be allies of the Great Wyrm Cortelus and the city-state of Argak. Both of whom have very long memories, and some very powerful allies.

In Darcosia, there are only two types of people: the rulers and the ruled.

Which will you be?


At one point I was quite an avid Play-by-mail gamer. These games are played by sending in turns by postal mail or email (PBeM). Inevitably, I decided to run a few games of my own as part of Nova Games (see the FAQ).The first game I created, the Mandragora series: Shadows Lengthen, was a single-character hand-moderated game that was incredibly time-consuming to run (during 2002-2003), and I eventually had to shut it down after a few months. It is worth pointing out that most hand-moderated PBMs do fold – the time involved is considerable if you’re not doing as a full-time job. Even then, the financial returns tend to be minimal. The original blurb is reproduced below:

The Mandragora series is a role-playing game set in the island kingdom of Lonaraban, a place of intrigue, treachery, and dark magic. In it, players take the role of one of the inhabitants of the Isle, the Mandragora.

The Mandragora are a race magically created centuries ago to participate in a devastating war, by the War Wizards of the Etruscan Empire. With a need to create highly magical yet tough soldiers, the spell-casters turned to the most feared and magical creatures on the planet: the Dragons. The creators were wiped out in the War That Shook the Earth. However, their creations, the Mandragora survived, and in the years of famine and war that followed they roamed the lands searching for a place where they would no longer be persecuted or slain by a human populace that feared and mistrusted them. Eventually, their travels led them to the island of Lonaraban, a heavily forested isle of steep cliffs and towering mountains. As their SpellWind craft skimmed into the bay, the Gold Mandragora Matriarch leading the expedition named it Kal’ashiraah, or Bay of Hope, in the High Mandragora speech.

Over the years their culture developed and cities were built. Their numbers increased, and each sub-species found their own caste. With the Gold Mandragora as their leaders their society flourished – and their Dragon heritage became more apparent. To this day, greed ambition, and treachery define a Mandragor’s standing in their society.

Choose from a variety of different roles – from the deadly Black Mandragora TunnelRunner to the mystical Silver Sacred Ones – and experience a whole new world…

This is the world of the Mandragora Series.

The series is a new type of play-by-mail game, split into months-long ‘episodes’. Each player takes the role of a single character, leading to a far more in-depth and detailed development. The world is dynamic, and your character’s actions can affect future episodes in a variety of ways.

The second game I designed was Ties of Blood. Having learnt my lessons from Shadows Lengthen, I made this a more controlled game. However, despite planning everything so well the playtest never took off as few people took me up on the offer.

Both game  manuals and game materials available for download.


Ties of Blood was a more carefully planned game than Shadows Lengthen. I’ve given some thought to converting it to a board game.. The original blurb is reproduced below.

Ties of Blood is a fantasy PBM game of politics and intrigue, “the Great Dance”, in the island kingdom of Lonaraban, the home of the Mandragora. In Ties of Blood, players have the opportunity to take the leadership of the main political power bases of Lonaraban – the Imperial and Noble Houses that vie for power. A number of the game materials are available for download.

The objective of Ties of Blood is simple: to win the Imperial Throne of Lonaraban, by any means necessary. To become Empress will take skill, diplomacy, and cunning. The current Empress may be old, but misses very little and your Matriarchs (the leaders of your House) will need to use all their resources at their disposal to elevate the Head of the Noble House to this exalted position.

The only way to do this is to get the Three Hundred of the Shirr’haim to pass a motion of no confidence in the Empress, and thereby impeach her House. The Three Hundred comprise the Shirr’haim, which translates to human speech as “Place where items of great import are spoken of”. Not only is this the name of the Senate, it is also the capital city: both are the same.

This game will feature a huge number of political manoeuvres (including dirty tricks such as blackmail, arson, inciting riots and outright warfare), a notoriety score used to define how long a house “can get away with it”, rules for magic use in politics – including Dark magic!

The Ties of Blood Boardgame

I decided to start work on developing Ties of Blood as a board game.

The objective of Ties of Blood is simple: to win the Imperial Throne of Lonaraban, by any means necessary. To become Empress will take skill, diplomacy, and cunning. The current Empress may be old, but misses very little and your Matriarchs (the leaders of your House) will need to use all their resources at their disposal to elevate the Head of the Noble House to this exalted position.

The only way to do this is to get the Three Hundred of the Shirr’haim to pass a motion of no confidence in the Empress, and thereby impeach her House. The Three Hundred comprise the Shirr’haim, which translates to human speech as “Place where items of great import are spoken of”. Not only is this the name of the Senate, it is also the capital city: both are the same.

This game would feature a huge number of political manoeuvres (including dirty tricks such as blackmail, arson, inciting riots and outright warfare), a notoriety score used to define how long a House “can get away with it”, rules for magic use in politics – including Dark magic!

Much of the features of the original PBM will feature, although I will have to make quite a few modifications obviously! I planned to:

  • Convert the map of Lonaraban to a board suitable for the game.
  • Create playing pieces to represent Mandragora Scions and other personalities.
  • Cards that represent random Events and Advantages.
  • Create a Notoriety score-keeper.
  • Create a House record sheet.



Warhammer 40,000 (WH40k) Planetary Invasion

This was one of my best, and worst ideas. After reading the the Chapter Approved supplement for Warhammer 40000: Rogue Trader (the 1987 edition, not the Black Industries RPG), I decided to run a game that dealt with a planetary invasion by Eldar.

At the time, Chaos was hated by all the players so it would be Eldar vs. the Space Marines of the KIL Chapter (not my choice of name). I built up an elaborate number of scenarios, from attacks on defence laser emplacements, to street fights. However, exams interfered and we never got a chance to play.

Looking back now, I was a bit overambitious, but it would have been cool.

Bleak Midwinter setting for wh40k

This was eventually shelved, but it wasn’t a bad idea at the time. (Bill, October 2014)

Bleak Midwinter was an idea that I’ve had percolating around in my head for a while (and I’ve mentioned it before): a proper crossover campaign, set in the Warhammer 40,000 (wh40k) universe. I’m not talking about just a couple of games involving Space Marines from the Deathwatch RPG, and an Inquisitors cell from Dark Heresy. Oh no, I was thinking bigger than that (possibly even involving characters from Black Crusade, and Epic scale as well!).

Here’s the plan – a series of wh40k RPG games running at ORC and elsewhere, together with a series of wh40k battles, perhaps being run at Edinburgh League of Gamers (aka [elg]). Ambitious? Very much so. And that’s why I’d need some help with it (see below) – I’d need folk to run and play the games, but also to organise the tabletop battles as I’ve no direct contact with any of the Edinburgh wargame clubs. I’m thinking I could organise things so we could probably start running the games in January 2012!

My concept is that Bleak Midwinter is set within the Midwinter Expanse,  a nebula known for its White Dwarf Stars. It would feature Space Marines, Rogue Traders, as well as Acolytes of the Inquisition as the plot gradually develops, leading to large scale battles as the events unfold (each battle or adventure spins off a new plot or battle). We could see large scale space battles, hive worlds erupting into violence and a whole host of things happening that would make a fantastic campaign for all involved.

However, I’d need help. While I appreciate that Games Workshop (GW) would probably jump at the chance to help, I’d rather Bleak Midwinter remained in the hands of the gamers as it were, rather than become a marketing tool. This is a pretty ambitious project, so for obvious reasons I’m going to need some assistance. Here’s how I’m seeing things, breaking them down to their simplest requirements:

  • Writers to help create the adventures.
  • Volunteers to help plan the battles.
  • I’d d appreciate some help creating the campaign itself.
  • Someone to approach the Edinburgh Wargaming clubs to see if they’d be interested.
  • GMs to run the games.
  • Volunteers to run the battles.
  • Someone to keep track of what is going on.

Obviously, I’ve got a major plot arc for Bleak Midwinter in mind, but there’s no reason why events have to follow it. Note that I’m not planning to make money off this; the only donation I’m looking for is time! :)


I’ve run a lot of RPGs over the years, but not all have worked out.

Babylon 5 RPG Campaign

Being a lifelong fan of Babylon 5, I made the decision to run a short B5 campaign at ORC. I obtained the Mongoose Publishing B5 RPG (2nd Edition). There were a few sticking points:

  1. Character creation in the Babylon 5 RPG takes ages. It took so long that we were still getting ready to play 90 minutes later.
  2. The Babylon 5 background is so detailed that the RPG is only really suitable for die-hard fans.
  3. The d20 system is a bit of a pain to use with B5.

It was a good idea for a campaign I had (or seemed like it): the PCs are assigned to an ultra-secret division of ISA Intelligence tasked with preventing the misuse of technology gleaned from the Shadow War. This would mean travelling around and coming into conflict with the Drakh and hostile alien governments.

The idea for the first game was that someone was using a hunter-killer to kill certain people on Babylon 5 – the Drakh agent concerned was trying to conceal the location of a de-activated Shadow cruiser near Coriana 6, where the great battle between the ISA, Vorlons and Shadows occurred. A Drakh fleet were on their way to collect it, but the agent was covering his tracks.

The hunter-killer was one of my better ideas. A tiny biological chameleon that flew to its target then detonated a mini-bomb; it was untraceable to bomb sensors, and coded to a specific DNA sequence. Naturally when the PCs found that the victims were being killed by something that was out of phase they started thinking that there were Shadows in the room…

When the PCs arrived at Coriana 6, the plan was for the Drakh ships to arrive at the edge of the system, giving the PCs little time to find and destroy the Shadow Cruiser…

The game went OK, but I don’t think it would have worked out as a campaign.

Raunia RPG

The Raunia RPG was a gestalt of different systems: Fighting Fantasy, my own and a system that a school mate, David Tynan had sketched out. I’ve still got the original notes from the late 80’s, with some of the maps. I cringe a bit when I look at them now. It never really went beyond a couple of games with my then gaming group – we were going through a WH40k Epic scale Adeptus Titanicus/Space Marine phase.

Marvel Superheroes RPG

This has its own page here. One week in and half the players couldn’t bothered turning up.

RPG retrospective 2013

RPG retrospective 2013 is the latest in what has become something of an annual tradition for me. I’ve let the GMs and players over at ORC speak for themselves on the ORC website, but its been quite a year for me.

Personal achievements

I’ve not written so much on this blog this year, as to be quite honest I’ve not had time. What content I have put up has hopefully been of some use to anyone using the site. I hope to try and blog more over the next year, but will try to include more quality content, both specific gaming content, and otherwise.

Games I’ve been running this year included PathfinderAD&D and WFRP, and Wildfire’s new RPG, The Void (part of the Cthulhu Saga, a review of the game can be found here). The Pathfinder game I ran was part of the Ronin GM idea I had. I used the Sands of Time setting I made up (some of the places are detailed on the ORC wiki here), an Egypt-meets-Cthulhu, style setting. I only ran it for five or six sessions and although it proved a lot of fun to run, I didn’t really achieve aims I had for my role as  “Ronin GM”, although a few people that had never played RPGs or Pathfinder got the experience! I’ve described the Void RPG elsewhere, but it has potential.

AD&D has been something of a cathartic experience. It’s nice to have a simple dungeon bash that doesn’t challenge GM and players yet remains considerable. I’ve run it using AD&D before and its surprising how easy it came back to me, and even new players find it fairly intuitive over 3.5/4e. It also had the first PC fatality I’ve had in a game for quite a while. The group has finally got a full complement after a few folk dropped out during the year, and the new mage seems to even the score a bit. Expect a more detailed description on how I’m running the mega-scenario “The Temple of Elemental Evil” in a future post, or posts.

WFRP has gone from being bleakly grimdark (and po-faced) to something that hopefully has been fun to play and run – after my mistakes running Shadows over Bogenhafen (detailed here), Death on the Reik has been a joy to run. A number of fantastic experiences have been had by the players and the Queen of the Reik (under Captain Priscilla) now feels like home to the party. Heart of Chaos and Legacy of Praag were two of the encounters I came up with to spice up the adventure. I’ve chosen to skip “Something Rotten in Kislev” after Power Behind the Throne, choosing to run Drachenfels instead. SRiK isn’t a good module, and I got bored just reading it.

EDIT: I also ran Fires of Perdition, and, although it ran for a short time, was immense fun to both run and play. This was a mash-up of the Only War rules with the PCs as members of the Adeptus Arbites. Set in the Hive city of Perdition, on the world of Crucible, it was pretty much a knock-off Judge Dredd setting (more info on the setting here). If I ran it again, I’d definitely try to be little less epic – the players said they enjoyed playing a “street level” judge without the whole Chaos-warp-doom that pervades so much wh40k.

Other achievements? My freelance work on demons (and the artist’s interpretation) finally appeared in the supplement: Fragment 1: The Way of Tree Sword, & Flame, working alongside designers such as: George Strayton, Logan Bonner, Tony Reyes, Thomas Reid, Bill Smith, Ptolemy Slocum, Ron Corn, Ed Greenwood, Mike Curtis, John Adamus, Steve Winter, and Jim Ward. I recently appeared on Hazard Gaming’s Penny Red podcast, as part of their “Inside the Roleplayers Studio” series. I was recently interviewed by about my part in the Nova Games PBM partnership, for Issue 2 of the new PBM magazine “Suspense And Decision” (yet to be published).

I’ve backed a lot of RPG Kickstarters over the year (and other games). I’m especially looking forward to getting Deadzone setup and running (although I’ve a few gripes about the mini construction). Also the “Horror on the Orient Express” boxed set for Call of Cthulhu and “Rise of the Drow” Pathfinder campaign are due for release next year.

RPG plans for 2014

As well as running WFRP and AD&D, I’d like to get cracking on my novel idea. I’m not having troubles with ideas of the plot, it’s the actual linking them together and getting the words out of my head 🙂 .I’ve also decided to run a game session on Sunday evening called Survival Sunday; where we play Shadows of Esteren, The Void (the Stygian Cycle in all likelihood), CthulhuTech, and of course, Call of Cthulhu. Once “Horror on the Orient Express” arrives I’ll be running that.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year!

Kickstarter campaigns for RPGs

I’d originally written a whole spiel on Kickstarter campaigns for RPGs as part of my last blog post but saved over by accident! For those unaware of Kickstarter, its a funding tool owned by Amazon that allows people to pledge cash towards a project, with “stretch goal” rewards. It has been used with great success by a number of projects that are RPG related – notably the Order of the Stick reprint drive and the recent Reaper Miniatures drive. At the moment I’m supporting the reprint of the classic Call of Cthulhu boxed set, Horror on the Orient Express.

At one point, Kickstarter was used by smaller projects to fund their startups. Nowadays it is becoming used as a marketing tool as well by some of the bigger companies. One of Kickstarter’s strengths is that if the funding goal isn’t reached, no money is taken. It’s in the interest of a Kickstarter Project (KP) to encourage people to pledge an amount obviously, but the use of stretch goals can encourage a projects backers to part with more cash. Stretch goals are points during a project where backers gain a reward of some kind. A souvenir of some kind or something extra like a free adventure when that point is reached, that can make the campaign unique. These goals can in themselves help increase the pledge levels.

Unfortunately many KPs probably don’t make it or don’t really engage with prospective backers. They don’t plan out their campaign properly –  they simply see it as a revenue stream. Here’s some things that I think most KPs forget:

  • Shipping information from the get-go. Postage to international backers can be expensive, so work it out.
  • Planning the pledge levels. You can’t change them on KS once you have launched the Kickstarter campaign.
  • Using stretch goals is a great way to encourage backers to pledge more, but work out the costs. If you’re offering a signed copy of a book at a certain level, and get 10,000 backers, you’ll need to sign them! If you add more to pledge level rewards, remember that shipping might change.
  • Make the event unique – more than just a final copy of the book. Throw in some extras (such as replica train tickets or floorplans, like the Horror on the Orient Express KS).
  • Communication with backers is a must – through KS itself or social media such as FB and Twitter. Most backers will check the KS page first. Its also a good idea to check regularly during the campaign and update the project.

As a business tool, Kickstarter is invaluable to those starting up their own RPG. Not only does it give you an instant established fan-base, you can also use it to connect with a whole new audience as well as the chance to test the waters as it were. I’m pretty sure that a number of small-press projects would never have made it. However, there’s no guarantee of quality at the end of the process. In an industry that has increasingly begun to hinge on PDF sales of their products. I’ve always found the whole print vs. PDF argument somewhat moot. If you’re going to print a product, you’ll likely send the proofs (bleeds and all) to the printer as a PDF. Whether its Quark or Indesign or MS Word, the PDF is pretty much what you send to any print house – be they Amazon, Lulu or a dead-tree printer :). My thoughts are that any game should be a professionally-published PDF. If you’re unclear on how to do it, you shouldn’t be trying to get your game out there. And for gods sake get someone else to edit it.

If there’s one thing I hate, its a badly produced PDF. Text should be readable and the reader should be able to copy from it. It should also be laid out in a reasonable fashion, aligned in columns – and readable on any mobile device. It should also be bookmarked. I appreciate not everyone has access to DTP software like Quark or InDesign, but Open Office or similar still offer pretty good tools.

I’m no entrepreneur, but I like to think I’ve acquired some business sense. Several years ago, myself and a friend launched a PBM (play by mail) games partnership. We approached it as business, not just a hobby – and as a result we made a profit. We worked out the time taken for development, the materials involved, and the cost of doing business! RPGs are often a labour of love on the part of their creators and it is often far too easy to slap together a PDF, secure some cheap artwork, then slap it on the ‘net for $30. However, if you take the time to test it, invest the time in marketing and “polishing” you’ll get a much better response to your project.

At the end of the day, take a look at KS campaigns that failed, and what they were offering. Also, consider the glut of RPGs and their systems on places like RPGnow or DrivethruRPG. What will make your game stand out?

Kickstarter campaigns may allow you to raise funds to get a book published, but the quality of the product rests solely upon the creator.

GM Burnout

“It’s better to burn out than fade away!” The Kurgan, Highlander

I think there comes a time when everyone “burns out”, creatively speaking – be it storytelling, writing or GMing. I feel it every few years when I’m running RPGs, and I reckon I’m not alone in experiencing it. Creativity isn’t like a tap – you can’t turn it on or off as needed. I’ve often found myself in the position where I’m completely stumped for an idea, only to have an epiphany later on – sometimes its better to take a step back from a problem or project and just rethink things – I’m not just talking about RPGs: sometimes in IT you can create additional problems by over-thinking something (a PC may not be connecting because of a dodgy cable not a TCP/IP stack)! I’ve also found that my mental state also has some bearing – unsurprisingly, if you’re under a great deal of stress or feeling down, your problem-solving and thinking processes tend to suffer as a result. At the moment, I’m thinking of just taking my time and not rushing things: I’ve a lot on at work and it can be difficult to concentrate on some of the other stuff I need to sort out at home, gaming or otherwise.

To be honest, RPGs are a good way to relieve stress. In the past I’ve had what one of my friends calls “Black Moods”, where I feel pretty rotten, and depressed. That’s depression with a small D: clinical Depression is no joke – however I think it is too often abused as an excuse (often misdiagnosed and drugs are over-prescribed by GPs who can’t be bothered). I’m not denying that at some point I may have been Clinically Depressed, but that was a long time ago. Sometimes these moods hit me (not for a few years though) but I’ve learned to ride them out – if you look back through my blog entries you’ll spot some of the times when they hit me! RPGs and the creative process help considerably with these moods  I’m not one of these people who post their mental status on social networking sites (at least I hope I’m not!), seeking validation through cryptic comments; or playing for sympathy, so that everyone is compelled to ask what’s wrong.

Enough of my psychobabble! The main focus of this RPG article is the phenomenon known as GM Burnout. I’ve been an occasional victim of this, as mentioned above.

Recognising GM (and player!) burnout

Once you reach a certain age, or level of experience as a GM, it becomes difficult to find the time to either create new adventures or settings. Certain game systems become too advanced, or too simplistic. You just go through the motions sometimes.This is what happened with me and D&D: I don’t like 4th edition as it’s just somewhat basic and seems geared towards using a battle map and miniatures. 3.5 is too munchkin now: there’s very little “role” involved in what is essentially a paper version of a PC game (feats, etc.).

As a GM, you’ll spot the signs of burn-out in yourself by these:

  • You’re having trouble coming up with new ideas.
  • You regard the game as a chore rather than a leisure activity.
  • You’ve lost your enthusiasm for the game.
  • You become annoyed at the slightest thing during your games.
  • Player/PC antics no longer amuse you.
  • You find yourself cancelling games as you have other things to do.
  • You want to run another game but don’t know which one.
  • You have to regularly cancel games because players can’t make it.
  • You’re running multiple games and are finding it difficult to concentrate.
  • The game just doesn’t work for you.

You can usually notice it in players too, with much of the same “symptoms”, for want of a better word. Often they’re committed to two or more games – possibly as a GM  too.

“Case Studies”

Here are some of my own cases of burnout, or other failures (and what went wrong!).

Against the Odds: I used D&D 4e for this. Looking back upon it this was a mistake – I didn’t think about how the game would pan out using a system that focuses heavily on combat, rather than investigation or intrigue. Consequently I got frustrated and ditched it.

Ashes of Freedom: again D&D, but 3.5&4e  this time. However, the first time I ran AoF (when 4e came out), I got a bit sick of the system (and one of the players threw a bit of a hissy fit too when he couldn’t get his own way), plus I had two groups and one lot changed nearly every week. However a little later I returned to AoF using D&D3.5. I did overcommit myself to creating a 3.6 version as well, but it WAS a popular game. It reached a natural end, with some pretty good action sequences, and I was needing  a break anyway – I realised I was getting close to burnout.

Babylon 5: great idea, crap implementation, rotten PR. The d20 edition of the Babylon 5 RPG doesn’t work as it stands. Unfortunately, I thought I could craft this great campaign, with a story arc that could match JMS. Unfortunately it was not to be: other popular games were on that day; the setting required too much metagame knowledge/series background; and the system was pretty poor and didn’t really run well. Looking back, I could have done something with it I guess, but I was feeling a little restless: wanting to run an RPG, something other than D&D. I think I was definitely burned out as a GM at this point.

The New World: despite this setting being incredibly popular since, the first outing proved to be an unmitigated failure. In its first incarnation, it was designed to be an ORC shared campaign. A group of DMs worked over several months to hammer out a setting and plot line, and on D&D day we had three different DMs running a game. Then the other GMs lost interest (or couldn’t be bothered), and I was left carrying the game – I got pretty sick of that so the New World was put on ice for a few years – it’s still used frequently by other DMs at ORC and elsewhere (including some of my ideas 🙂 so its not a total loss. After this event I didn’t run anything for a while, as I was pretty hacked off. I felt vastly disappointed. It was a game where there were plenty of folk wanting to play, but few willing to run.

PBM games: I definitely suffered GM burnout with these. Shadows Lengthen took so much of my time that despite the fact that it made some small amount of money that I just got tired of running it. Ties of Blood looked really good on paper, but failed to garner enough interest. I just gave up on it as a result.

What to do

The best thing to do is take a break – the time involved depends upon the individual. If you’re running an existing game, tell your players that you want to take a break for a while. Maybe let someone else run, and you can relax and actually be a player for a while.

Try running a different game and keep it to a short series i.e. a mini campaign. If you’re short of ideas, it can be a good idea to carry a small A5 or smaller notebook everywhere. You’d be surprised when (and where) you can find inspiration!

If the game itself isn’t working, that’s more difficult: it’s best to give some serious thought to if you can see it continuing in its current form. If you can’t, give your players an ending to remember! If there’s no way you can see the game going on, be as dramatic as possible in the game’s conclusion – all the gloves are off: PCs die, NPCs change loyalty, the villain(s) die(s), the world ends, etc. Aim for a whammy!

NOTE: I know this is kinda written like a medical crib sheet, but I thought it might be fun to write it like that. Obviously RPGs are a leisure hobby – treat it that way!

Dark & Dangerous

Well, I completed my work on the The Secret Fire RPG yesterday, right on schedule. Having never been involved on developing an RPG on a real basis, this has proved something of a learning curve for me. It will be officially released at GenCon – yes, THAT GenCon!

When you design as part of a team, there’s a sort of momentum to things. You can throw ideas into the mix and you often find that one person’s discarded idea is another’s inspiration. One of the earliest decisions was to go non-OGL, and this freed us up to take a look at what we liked, and what didn’t work. It’s interesting to note that the L&L team at Secret Fire games come from different generations of RPGs. I started with the 1st edition Dragonlance series, and Fighting Fantasy (I still have that dungeon somewhere); others started with original D&D or 3.5. The system is crunchy enough for sticklers, but there’s a lot of flavour to it as well.

When we ran Nova Games, the PBM partnership, it was very different. Dave and I both had our own games, and although we did dabble a little in each others games but we never went the road that Secret Fire is going with TSF. It’s a huge undertaking, more so when there’s a big whammy involved too (which I can’t say more about at this time!), and the whole process is actually very interesting. I’m going to love to see the finished book especially in its printed format – I’d love to be able to do bookbinding or similar, but I don’t know where I’d find the time or materials.

What I also find interesting is that more people are returning to the RPG hobby, often introducing their children to it. TSF should appeal to folk of all ages, especially those returning to the hobby. It encourages creative thought as well. I’ve hated that whole sameness of character that you get with feats and min/maxing of characteristics that happens these days in RPGs, especially D&D. TSF rewards a player who plays his character, not a group of numbers that have been tweaked. There’ s no such thing as a bad character in L&L.

What also strikes me is that we’ve come full circle, with many people returning to the fantasy genre. For a number of years we’ve had fads for particular games, some of which are vastly different from the fantasy genre – this doesn’t mean that they are any more adult or “better”. Like the whole division between LARP, computer RPGs,  and pen and paper RPGs – they appeal to different people, and for different reasons. Just because a game is advertised as “dark” or “gritty” doesn’t mean that its a particularly “grown-up” game – let’s not think about what a Twilight series RPG would be like (there probably is one, or will be – where’s Yog-Sothoth when you need him?!). The dystopian future idea was big in the 90s (Shadowrun, Cyberpunk 2020), and still is (CthulhuTech) – but became a little stale. They became victims of their own success, with cyberpunk time-line canons needing constant revision in later editions.

The point I’m trying to make is that no matter what genre of RPG you play, you shouldn’t treat those who like a different genre any different: there’s a lot of arrogance in the RPG hobby, a perception that if you play or run a fantasy RPG (D&D or L&L for example) then you’re not a “proper” GM. That’s total nonsense. Yes, some games are more complicated than others, but we’ve had a lot of fun with simple systems like Star Wars D6, and a lot of my players have fond memories of these games. A complicated system like CthulhuTech’s Framewerk or Shadowrun have done the same thing.

Oh, and one final thing. I was speaking to a friend who participates in Edinburgh’s Vampire LARP, Embraced ( I thought I’d mention the fact that they’re always on the lookout for new blood  (sorry!), i.e. new players as it were. They’re quite a close knit group so if you’re new to Edinburgh it might be worth a visit if you’re looking for new friends. There’s always ORC Edinburgh as well 🙂 – it’s also worth me mentioning my Gaming in Edinburgh page as well.