Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Mecha Chickens Not Included

When I'm writing for conventions, I often like to have scenarios that are linked to the place the game is being run. Lincoln was no exception and I did quite a bit of research to try and find a local hook for the story. Providence was again smiling because George Boole, the father of Boolean logic (and therefore of modern computing) was born in Lincoln and ran several schools there. The castle at Lincoln is also fascinating, having been used as a gaol during the Victorian period. And then, of course, there was The Lawn...
After a bit of cogitation, the seed for the scenario developed under its own steam. I also like to make sure that if I'm writing a detective style scenario, I have several people who could have done it. That way, I can reuse the scenario, giving it a slightly different twist each time. It worked very well for a scenario I used to run for Pelgrane Press at conventions; every time it aired someone different was the murderer, so you could actually play the same game more than once and still get something new from it. The Lincoln game was constructed to have three possible outcomes, all based on the same core background.

I ran the new scenario twice at Lincoln over the weekend, first for a group of experienced roleplayers and then for two newcomers (ably assisted by some more experienced hands we've gamed with for years in an LRP capacity). The version used for the first session was one of the two slightly more complex iterations of the story. There were quite a few technical challenges to running it that were beyond our control, but all in all it went well and proved that the idea was a sound one. The players quickly came on board with the system and seemed to thoroughly enjoy decorating their cakes before we got going. Not that the cakes had anything really to do with the story, but it was a fun thing to do (there was multi-coloured icing sugar, hundreds & thousands and silver balls!).

For the second session, I reverted to the first and much simpler version of the tale. The two young ladies who joined us were absolute naturals and really jumped into the game whole-heartedly. The technical difficulties of the day before were overcome by a change of venue and there was much hilarity, especially when the group decided that a well educated giant mecha chicken was probably responsible for all of the shenanigans in old Lincoln town. Well, that, or Professor Yaffle from Bagpuss. It wasn't, more's the pity, but it was a rather fun idea. Again, the group neatly solved the puzzle with minimum hinting from me.

The highlight of this game for me was that one of the young ladies wanted to set up her own group at home to play it because she'd enjoyed herself so much. You can't ask for more than that.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Asylum

Some days it feels as if we're all living in one, but The Asylum is a fantastic steampunk convention that will be taking place in Lincoln over the weekend of 10-12th September 2010.

We'll be running Cogs, Cakes & Swordsticks at the Asylum (possibly in a prison cell, no less!) on Saturday & Sunday afternoon. Each session will be for between 4-6 people. We'll also be selling a newly updated and expanded version of the game for a very measly sum at the Dicken's & Rivett stall (who will also be selling PixiePunk Designs jewellery). Jon Hodgson's wonderful design will be on the cover, lovingly tweaked by Terry Lightfoot.

We're keeping our fingers crossed that Saturday's game may also have an extra special touch to it. At the very least, I'll be baking something delicious to take along. After all, gamers (especially Victorian steampunk ones) need cake!

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Cakey Goodness

Taking a leaf out of Graham Walmsley's book (the upcoming "A Taste For Murder"), I've decided that it might be nice to pop some cake recipes up here for your perusal. Cake is vitally important to any Victorian game, as is tea. But I don't have any tea recipes, although should you find yourself in Toronto, there's a superb tea shop called All Things Tea we would highly recommend (especially their Belgian Chocolate one, its scrummy).

So, first recipe: This one is from the recipe sheet available from Heatherslaw Mill in Northumberland. Should you be in the area, the mill is well worth a visit and has a nice little shop selling all sorts of flour and cooking ingredients as well as the usual tourist tat. I've actually made this cake several times and its rather nice.

Heatherslaw's Carrot Cake:
6oz (170g) Heatherslaw wholemeal flour (although any good quality organic wholemeal will do)
4oz (115g) grated carrot
4oz (115g) margarine (or butter substitute, which usually tastes nicer)
4oz (115g) soft brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon of milk
2.5 level teaspoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional, allegedly, but it does work very nicely in this cake)
Grated zest of half an orange
Pinch of salt

1. Preheat oven to 160C/325F/Gas mark 3
2. Sift baking powder, salt, cinnamon and flour into a small bowl, mix well and add the grated carrot. Mix again
3. Cream the margarine and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy, then add the orange zest. (Try to resist eating the butter/sugar mix; my Nana always swore it was good for sore throats, but no matter how tempting, you need it for the cake)
4. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well. Spoon in a little of the flour mixture to stop it from curdling. (To be on the safe side, I always add a little flour before I start adding the eggs, which I always crack into a cup to make sure they're fresh first)
4. Gradually mix in the rest of the flour, then add the milk a little at a time until the mixture is soft but not runny. (You may need more milk, or less, but be careful with this step or you'll end up with icky goop)
5. Place in a six-inch (approx. 15cm) cake tin which has been greased and lined with greaseproof paper
6. Bake at the above temperature for forty-five to sixty minutes. (To see if its cooked, insert a clean skewer in the centre of the cake: if it comes out clean, the cake is done; if there's cake mix on it, it needs a bit longer)
7. Cool on a wire rack, then scoff it.

You could add icing or butter-cream to the top, but that would make it very naughty indeed. I've never tried that, so I don't have a recipe for it. There is one here, though, but I've no idea how good it is. Apparently you can add flavourings to it instead of/as well as the vanilla; orange might be nice, say some Grand Marnier...


Thursday, 1 April 2010

New and Improved!

Yes, we too have succumbed to the whole new and improved fad. We've listened to our play testers (thank you!), added in a few of the tweaks we were saving for the final game but thought you'd enjoy anyway and put the whole brand-spanking updated version of the free game on the website for your perusal.

Not the best date in the world to pick for the rerelease, maybe, but there you go. We're British and we have an odd sense of humour ;)

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Remembering Ada: Professor Kay Davies

Considering her importance in CC&S, it would be very rude not to take part in Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of inspiring women in science and technology. A lot of people are going to ignore the straight science and go right for the tech side of things, so I'm going to be as contrary as ever and talk about a female scientist who had a great deal of influence on me.

Professor Dame Kay Davies was the first woman biomedical scientist I can remember seeing on TV. In the 1980s there was a superb documentary about her work on Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), a very severe genetically inherited disease that affects mostly boys. Apparently normal babies slowly lose muscle function as they grow older, dying by their early twenties as a result of complete paralysis. I can't remember who made the documentary; it may have been Horizon (before its criminal dumbing down), but it could just as easily have been QED or the much missed Equinox on Channel 4 (back before the channel gave in to reality TV hell). What I do remember is the blonde powerhouse driving forward the research into this deadly disease. She was smart, she was determined and she was making a difference; what more could a female proto-scientist want in a role model?

And she was up against quite a challenge. Professor Davies developed a test that would allow prenatal diagnosis of DMD, but actually hunting down the gene involved was no easy task. In the 1980s, molecular biology techniques were crude and laborious by current standards and usually involved playing around with tiny bits of DNA and lots of radioactive material. Still, her team got there in the end and the reason why it had been so hard to pin down the gene became apparent.

All of the genes in your body code for proteins, essential molecules that serve a myriad of purposes, from making up your hair and fingernails to digesting your dinner. Each gene is split into useful coding regions (exons) and filler non-coding regions (introns), but overall most genes aren't that big. Except for the Duchenne gene, which turned out to be huge, the largest known human gene, spread across vast distances of the X-chromosome which carries it. So big, in fact, that there is another entire gene hiding inside one of Duchenne's introns. Just to add to the numbers, the Duchenne gene is almost 2.5 million bases long (a base is the building block of DNA), has 79 exons, equating to approximately 4,000 amino acids (the building blocks of proteins). To make matters worse, those exons can be put together in slightly different ways to give lots of slightly different proteins that all have slightly different jobs. So you can see why it was such a task finding and sequencing that DNA a few hundred bases at a time.

Gene hunting in and of itself is very useful as it allows the development of screening tests, but unless you understand what the protein that gene makes is doing, you're still far from a solution. Even though we've sequenced the entire human genome as part of the Human Genome Mapping Project (1990 - 2003) we still don't know what most of those gene products are doing; we can read the book, but we don't know what it means. There's still is no cure for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, but thanks to Professor Davies' work, our understanding is much greater. Her continuing quest to crack the secrets of the gene will hopefully one day result in a treatment that will prevent the devastating effects of DMD.

So there we have it, my small tribute to Professor Dame Kay Davies, Fellow of the Royal Society, Governor of the Wellcome Trust and inspiration to molecular biologists everywhere, whatever sex they might be.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

The Continuing Adventures of...

It all went a bit quiet again, didn't it?

Since the free version went up, I've been beavering away on ammendments, additions and setting.
The section on HMFSC Atlantis is being massively expanded (it was always bigger in the full version, but its going to be a lot bigger than I'd originally planned to make it a really useful setting) and I've been tweaking a few rules based on some of the feedback I got from the play-test and from the forums. There's also a big chapter on Victorian trailblazers and nutters to act as imspiration and drop-in characters and there's a bit at the end with stats for all the major characters mentioned in the game to date (the whole chapter currently runs at 36 people and there will be at least the same again for Atlantis). I've also included some sample attributes in the character creation section.

I'm currently toying with ways to advance characters (possibly optional, depending on what your view is on that) and I'll give everything a test at Conpulsion in Edinburgh at the end of March. I'm officially running one game on the Sunday morning, but I will be about for a games on demand type thing. If you're in the area, please pop by to say hello.

Now to finish writing that scenario!

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Now Available...

The free version of the game is finally up! Apologies again for the delay, but it can be found here at our fledgling website.

Bear with us on the design of that, like the game its still a work in progress...

Friday, 5 February 2010

The Thief of Time

You know what its like; all your best intentions go to pot because real life gets in the way. Not just real life, extra research on something you're not overly fond of (hello, 19th century politics!). I had hoped to have the free version of the game up about two weeks ago, but events (and 19th century politics) conspired against me. Still, to be honest, that extra two weeks has allowed me to put a final bit of polish on the basic game, add in a few things that I hadn't intended to originally (but actually make the narrative flow much more smoothly) and tidy up a few rough edges. It was hard not writing a (mostly) definitive guide to women's fashion of the day, but that may well make an appearance in the full version somewhere.

Looking at it, I think one of the things I'm most pleased with are the timelines. There's a huge amount of information in them and hopefully they'll act as a spark of inspiration for people sorting out their own adventures.  If not, we are planning on writing scenarios as well as the main rules.

So, fingers crossed, it will be going up online somewhere this weekend, all being well. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Monkeying with the Formula

After the playtest in the deep snow of early January, the feedback suggested more information on the social and political set-up might be rather nice. You know, just in case not everyone interested in the game was a science geek (hard as that might be to believe).

So I have been researching, piecing together yet more fragments and attempting to knit another alternative history. Its been much more tricky than the engineering section, which positively lept into place of its own volition.

I had hoped to have a free version of the game finished by tonight; a basic version of the rules (only minimally adapted from the playtest) with a few crumbs of background separated into Cogs (science and engineering), Cakes (social and artistic) and Swordsticks (politics and war) sections. This layout was suggested by Jean and makes perfect sense within the context of the game (thank you, Jean).

However, wading through the politics of Europe in the mid to late 1800s has proved too much for one night. I don't want to sicken myself with it, so I feel that a nice soak in some decadent bubbles may well be in order to revive my flagging inspiration.

Still, by the end of the week, prepare for news  of where you can grab the free version. The general idea is that you'll download it, read it and test it to destruction so that when it does finally make it to a saleable PDF, its worth shelling out some money for!

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The Proof Being in the Pudding

The first playtest of the game took place amidst blizzards in the tranquil and very pretty setting of Derbyshire. Sadly, this meant that we were missing two of the expected players, but we did still have a very respectable four victims, ahem, testers.

R. had volunteered to run the game to see if his system design would work, so I would be playing. We had two other experienced roleplayers, N. and J., and a complete novice, A. It had been decided that we wouldn't use the background that I'd written but a more familiar one. This would mean that only the rules were being tested, not all of it. Yes, spot the scientists at work here - we're only testing one variable :)

The background we would be using is detailed here on the Company's home page. I would be playing my old favourite Isabel, N. would be playing Prof Wilson, and J. would be playing Miss Forsythe. As for A., he bravely volunteered to play Wilson's sidekick Lacy. It proved to be rather a different interpretation of the character to the one we all knew and loved!

Character creation proved to be very quick and easy for the experienced players who knew their characters and what would suit them. It was trickier for A. who didn't know either the character or much about table-topping, so we gave him a hand. It still took only about ten minutes to create four characters. Each character ended up with 3 skills, one of which was their primary. All of the skills were given appropriate, fun names to give a sense of character (inspired by Spirit of the Century)

As a final touch, R. asked if there were any features that the players wanted to see during the game. J. wanted a tea party and chickens, N. wanted dinosaurs/giant crabs and I wanted sky pirates. Well who wouldn't? The adventure would be entitled "Crimson to the Core"...

The story opened with the Prof requesting certain maps from Miss Forsythe, who obligingly took Isabel up to Loch Ness with her in order to deliver said maps. The Prof had toddled up to Scotland in his submarine with Lacy and had nonchalantly parked Loch-side. The ladies were subsequently invited on board for dinner, having learnt that the Prof was in search of diamond-like crystals that could be burned cleanly and efficiently. These just happened to be found in Africa, an area Isabel is very familiar with, having been raised there.

Whilst the group were dining, there was a very strange occurrence; the submarine, despite being moored, was apparently moving. At first, thoughts ran to being swallowed by the Monster, but having discovered an anaesthetising gas flooding the corridors, all agreed that we were being hijacked. The characters decided that an evacuation was required, so headed for the handy mole-machine that just happened to be stored in the cargo bay of the submarine.

But all was not safe, as those dastardly Men in Smoked Glasses were there trying to booby-trap the machine! Still, Lacy and the Prof gave them a sound drubbing and the characters soon strapped themselves in ready for escape. Yes, they suspected that the sub was currently being hoisted through the air under a Zeppelin, but the Prof assured them that the machine could withstand such drops if required.

Well, it sort of did. The plummet out of the back of the submarine was rather impressive, if panic-stricken, but thanks to Lacy's primary skill of "Drive 'Owt", the machine landed nose-cone first, burrowing rapidly into the earth. To determine this, A. rolled a single d6, adding +3 for his skill. R. then compared this to a difficulty table (nice and simple) to see if he succeeded, which thankfully he did. Not that the characters noticed, as they were all knocked unconscious by the impact.

When they woke, the mole-machine was tunneling away nicely, but with broken dials it was impossible to tell how far down the craft had gone. It then began to break into strange voids, which led to a bit more panic. But only a bit, as they were all Victorians and being terribly proper. What caused more consternation was the greenery in each of the voids...

Finally, Lacy and the Prof managed to regain control of the mole-machine, bringing it to a halt on the edge of a massive, verdant void. Thankfully, the chickens proved that the air was breathable by graciously not dying when the doors were opened. The Prof decided that he must stay and fix the machine, but that the others should explore.

The ladies, accompanied by Lacy, made their way across lush grass, through a mushroom forest and across a pavement of broken dressed stone to reach a mighty ziggurat. The light in the void appeared to be coming from the myriad of magical crystals embedded in the ceiling of the cavern. On the wall surrounding the ziggurat there was a clam shell and trident motif, which caused more consternation and some mumbling about Atlantis as Miss Forsythe recalled seeing the motif in a book somewhere (her primary skill).

The ziggurat was in a bit of a state, which allowed the group entry into the building. The inner walls were covered with the Prof's crystals and an open sarcophagus lay at the bottom of the tomb. The corpse was wearing very silly wingy armour, but the characters were more interested in the sudden arrival of a T. rex outside, which rather interrupted their transcribing the hieroglyphs in the tomb. Thankfully the creature fell asleep, so the characters affected an escape. Which didn't work. Because a clumsy librarian dropped her photographic plates and made a bit of a clatter.

Funnily enough, the T. rex woke up and decided to charge. Its at times like these that you're glad you've brought along a big game huntress who, by rolling a natural 6, managed to peg the brute right in its beady little eyeball, bringing it crashing to her feet in a most satisfyingly cinematic manner.

Not long after the Prof arrived in the mole-machine, alerted by the rather odd noises he'd heard. He and Lacy stripped several box loads of crystals from the walls before disturbing rather a lot of irate mechanical crab creatures. The party were forced to flee in the mole machine, taking out another T. rex on the way. That removed a few of the crabs from the body-work, but one little blighter managed to gain entry, attacking Lacy as he navigated the vehicle back up through the rocks. Removal of the glowing crystal from its back caused the little thing to fall to pieces, which the Prof gathered for later examination.

The adventure finished rather unfortunately in many ways; despite having escaped dinosaurs and marauding mechanicals, the mole-machine decided to re-enter London via Harrods Food Hall. Funnily enough, the Police weren't impressed, promptly arresting the Prof, Miss Forsythe and Isabel as they attempted, rather forlornly, to explain matters. The mole-machine was last seen breaking through the Police station walls, as Lacy executed a daring rescue of his compatriots...

In terms of the rules, we were all surprised by how many failures we had. The system is theoretically skewed more towards success, but that didn't stop some cringingly bad dice rolls from causing some high drama. Still, they came through when we needed them; the first roll of the game was A. rolling "Drive 'Owt" to make sure the mole-machine landed nose first and he got a natural 6! I also got natural 6s both times it was critical to succeed (the dinosaur shot and disarming the crab).

Everyone enjoyed themselves and the game lent itself very nicely to the pulp style of play I was aiming at when writing it. Several useful suggestions were made, too. It was felt that the skills were a bit too broad in their usage and that they needed tightening up to prevent potential abuse, with examples of skills provided that could act as templates for the development of unique ones. It was also suggested that some mechanism for character development could be included. The other suggestions made were related to potential scenario structure, further background information and layout of the contents.

And now, to the corrections, fleshing out the background and writing some scenarios. The game will probably appear in two formats now: a free pdf containing the rules and some historical/setting information and a much larger pdf containing a great deal more detail and setting that will be available for sale (probably via Etsy).

Watch this space...

Friday, 1 January 2010

Let the Games Begin!

The first (very rough) draft is complete. There is a lot missing; quite deliberately so, in fact. There are a limited number of character creation examples and no game-play ones yet. That's because I prefer to use real examples wherever possible, because made-up ones can sometimes feel just a little contrived.

One of my playtesters has asked for more "froth", by which she means stories and examples to give her more of a feel for the game. Again, hopefully that will come from the first playtest session. Another has commented that the initial draft reads like the engineers supplement for the game; I suppose it does, but maybe that's because the science is what fascinates me most (you know, as a scientist!). This will be addressed, with sections on politics, wars and exploration, as it is supposed to be a game of high-adventure, which in typical dopey fashion I knew but hadn't actually written in anywhere.

And therein lies the beauty of playtesters and proofreaders; you know what you meant to write, because it was as clear as day in your mind at the time you sat before your keyboard thumping away like the Dickens. But you always forget things; be it a word here or an idea there. There's always something that is crystal clear to you, but is a rather obscure point to someone else.

So, playtesting begins tomorrow - the first game of the New Year. We have seasoned roleplayers and a complete novice, which will also be very helpful in terms of level, detail and hiccups. When the test is complete, I shall post a brief report; no-one wants to read oodles of details from a game they didn't play in!