Play and Review: Alas for the Awful Sea

I finally ran Alas for the Awful Sea (Storybrewers Roleplaying) at Big Bad Con. This is a game Powered by the Apocalypse, built to tell dramatic tales about the characters’ needs, feelings, and conflicts; it’s set in poor coastal villages of the British Isles during the 19th Century and includes elements of history, legend, and supernatural.

Created by Australian game designers Hayley Gordon and Veronica “Vee” Hendro, the game was funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign back in February 2017. I was really excited about the focused theme, the promise of a streamlined approach to PbtA, and the team of women and non-binary people putting together the main book and the digital stretch goals. Besides, I don’t have very many Australian role-playing games (I can’t think of anything except Hunter Planet right now…)

They delivered right when promised and this beautiful book arrived in time for me to prep a game for Big Bad Con. It fit well, since I had decided to run only games made by women and non-binary people.

So here is a description of how I prepare the adventure, how it turned out in play, and finally a review of the game itself.

Whaler hove down for repairs


Preparation started with a thorough reading of the rule book. Sometimes when you try a new game you want to jump right to specific points like character creation, special moves, etc. However, I recommend reading PbtA games from cover to cover, because it’s never just a simple re-skinning like, say in most Savage Worlds or  GURPS books.

So yes, I read Alas for the Awful Sea as if it was a novel. It gave me a good overview of the setting and flavour as envisioned by the authors, as well as a sense of the type of action and drama the game is made for.

Storybrewers Roleplaying had also delivered some of the digital stretch goals, including some scenarios, so I decided to use the first, “The Tides of Man.” (They continued to deliver right on time!) This is a sort of Moby Dick-like premise: an old mariner has gone missing, leaving notes on a terrible whale he calls Mythic. For various reasons, the protagonists investigate and probably go chase the Mythic whale.

This and other adventures for Alas are very well set up, just the way I like them: some characters and their motivations, some locations and what you can learn there, some ideas for encounters, and broad-brush sketches of how the adventure might unfold, but the resolution left open. This is perfect for PbtA games in general, and for my preferred game-mastering style.

Most of my preparation consisted of carefully reading the rule book and adventure, and researching the setting (British Isles in the 1830s), topic (sailing and whaling), and legends (famous whales that inspired Moby Dick and similar literature, such as Mocha Dick, the Tay Whale, etc..) I prepared a couple of pages of notes such as typical descriptions of ships and whales, questions for character creation, etc.

I selected a few period images to help players visualize the setting, and created handouts based on the text of the adventure—everyone likes handouts, right? Finally, I collected character images from a variety of sources such as period engravings, vintage photographs, and open source portraits. I tried to offer gender and ethnic diversity, while sticking to what I know of the period.

Finally, I contacted the players who had signed up (Big Bad Con GMs receive their players’ contact info) and warned them that the scenario I was running would contain structural misogyny/racism/etc., descriptions of whaling/animal cruelty, and references to family domestic violence, but also that I would be using safety tools (Lines and Veils, X-card, and Script Change.)

Whaling—up close and personal


At the event itself, I had three players: Manuel, Ariel, and Jacob (a fourth had to cancel at the last minute—I missed you, Sandy!) Three or four is a good number for this sort of intense, player-game.

Also, we nay I went over the rules, setting, and safety tools. Everyone had played in some PbtA games before, so the rules overview was easy. I could readily see that the players were interested in the setting and had some familiarity with the period background.

Character creation was relatively quick; there is little risk of analysis paralysis in Alas because there are no long lists of moves to pick from. The characters are created by picking one of ten different character roles (Captain, Boatswain, Mercenary, Merchant, Old Sea Dog, Scholar, Strider, Surgeon, Cook, or Stowaway), and one of six different descriptors (the Lover, the Kinsman, the Believer, the Outcast, the Creature, or the Confidant.)

Each role gives one special move, and each descriptor provides one special bond and two or three special moves. As usual in most PbtA games, you select from options for your appearance and equipment, assign values to basic stats (Brains, Brawn, Beauty, Balance, and Beyond), and create some bonds with the other characters. Players also picked their character portraits; in my experience, character pictures are always a success at conventions.

We ended up with Captain Zacharias Nielsen, originally from Norway and a dour Outcast (played by Jacob); Luther the Old Sea Dog from Jamaica and a devout Obeah Believer (played by Manuel); and Mrs. Plaisance Houston, a wealthy widow Merchant and Confidant (played by Ariel.)

Finally, we discussed the basic moves available in Alas for the Awful Sea, and we were ready to go. This is where I give you a spoiler alert if you don’t want to read anything about the scenario: you can scroll forward to the review portion of this post.  Continue reading “Play and Review: Alas for the Awful Sea”


My 2017 in gaming

Nerdling time!

Despite having somewhat fewer health problems in 2017 than the previous year, the number of different games was down to only 44, from 62 in in 2015 and 47 in 2016.

The primary difference was in fewer different tactical and strategic games (board, card, and miniatures games), from 30 and 26 in previous years to 18 in 2017. And for this I blame: Gloomhaven. We played that game so much since we got it in February 2017! If I tracked hours spent per game instead of just game titles, we would see a very different pie chart.  Continue reading “My 2017 in gaming”

12 RPGs for the 12th Month: Coming Soon…

Paul Mitchener came up with a new writing challenge on role-playing games called “12 RPGs for the 12th Month” (see the full list of questions here.)

Question 12: 23rd to 24th December

Name an RPG, setting, or adventure you haven’t run or played before, but really want to try out in 2018. What particularly appeals about it?

I’m particularly looking forward to getting my copy of Sell Out With Me, the supplement for Robert Bohl’s Misspent Youth. The reason is the creative team:

Designers and writers: Caitlynn Belle, Strix Beltrán & Ajit George, Misha Bushyager, Judd Karlman, Kimberley Lam, Daniel Levine, Kira Magrann, Matthew McFarland, Michael Miller, Quinn Murphy, Joshua AC Newman, Dev Purkayastha, Alex Roberts, Hannah Shaffer, Jared Sorensen, Daniel Swensen, Curt Thompson, Rachel E.S. Walton, Bill White, and Gregor Vuga.

Artists: Christianne Benedict, Nyra Drakae, Alex Mayo, Jennifer Rodgers, Evan Rowland, Ernanda Souza, Rick Troula, and Jabari Weathers.

What’s not to love, right? Also, I have run a Misspent Youth campaign a few years ago and I thought it was a very clever game that produces great dramatic action.

12 RPGs for the 12th Month: Fun Times

Paul Mitchener came up with a new writing challenge on role-playing games called “12 RPGs for the 12th Month” (see the full list of questions here.)

Question 11: 21st to 22nd December

Talk about a particular stand-out positive experience of playing (rather than running) an RPG in 2017. What was it? What was so good about it?

I get the bulk of my joy in role-playing from three things:

  1. Hanging out with wonderful people.
  2. Seeing someone at the table do something amazingly clever, gutsy, funny, well-portrayed, and so forth.
  3. Occasionally being the one to do the thing.

Pretty much all my games satisfied #1 this year. There were games where I don’t remember any of the fiction or die rolls, but I remember just feeling super-chill and happy to be with my friends.

There were so many memorable moments for #2, though! I think I will pick Adi beautifully role-playing the witch in Gretchen Burneko’s Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne game at Big Bad Con, with Edmund giving the perfect counterpoint as Sir Thorne. It was a like a front-row seat for a high-quality theater drama.

(For #3, I will be a mean person and pick my barbarian collapsing the cursed temple onto the head of [Name Withheld]’s annoying character—and mine.)

12 RPGs for the 12th Month: #internet

Paul Mitchener came up with a new writing challenge on role-playing games called “12 RPGs for the 12th Month” (see the full list of questions here.)

Question 10: 19th to 20th December

Mobile phones and the internet in an RPG setting in the modern day world (perhaps with fantastic elements): discuss. What possibilities do they open up? What, if any, issues come with them when it comes to RPG scenarios?

I guess this is a question for us old fogeys. Players and game-masters who are in their 20s don’t need to discuss this (and probably scratch their heads at the question.)

Some elements jump to mind:

Instant communication between characters give a very different feel to splitting the party. They can be physically apart but still in contact; if you truly want them separated, they have to lose the signal somehow.

Communication can be private and silent, via text messages (watch out for that buzz or the lit screen that can give you away, though!)

Knowledge skills are strongly impacted: online, you can learn to make Turkish coffee, decode a cryptogram, or use a Raspberry PI and Lego blocks to create a recon bot. This means that intelligence should be treated much more as the capacity for reasoning and analysis, and less as the accumulation of data.

Instant proof and documentation—snap a photo or secretly record a conversation, upload. While opponents of the PCs will sometimes be able to claim it’s a doctored photo or recording (and some supernatural critters may not show in digital media, I guess), in general that alters a lot of stories depending on “No one will believe us” or “Get the information in the right hands” premises.

Always have the right tool: With apps for GPS, magnifier, starfinder, compass, first aid manual, birding field guide, drawing, banking, and so forth, there are many tasks that become possible or trivial wherever the characters are, as long as they have a signal.

Under Big Brother’s eye: The flip side is that it can be very difficult to evade tracking or surreptitious phone cloning, and having a phone confiscated or stolen can put a crimp in one’s plan.

Horror games should be designed to use loss of signal, surveillance, unexpected ringing, cryptic texts or calls, new suspicious apps, panicked calls from other characters, trusted but unreliable Wikipedia information, and so forth. You can really affect the pace with such tools.


12 RPGs for the 12th Month: Future Imperfect

Paul Mitchener came up with a new writing challenge on role-playing games called “12 RPGs for the 12th Month” (see the full list of questions here.)

Question 9: 17th to 18th December

You’re planning to run some science fiction, in a setting of your choice. Is there any particular technology you want to include because the possibilities intrigue you. Is there any standard piece of “future technology” you’d rather leave out?

Ah, another fun question.

Let’s start by narrowing it to subgenre, since the scifi genre is so vast. While I enjoy cyberpunk, space opera, time travel, post-apocalypse, planetary romance, and fighting dystopian futures, I particularly love space exploration adventures with a realistic feel.

They don’t have to be excruciatingly accurate to the latest scientific journals, but I like when you feel the danger and the fragility of human life in the blackness of space, the sense that everyone aboard has to pull their weight for the ship to survive the voyage. I particularly like keeping things at the scale of colonization of the Solar System.

That means no FTL drives, and the only artificial gravity comes from rotation or acceleration. No light sabers, no replicators (except 3D printing), no teleportation.

12 RPGs for the 12th Month: Prepping to Run

FAE: at the game table

Paul Mitchener came up with a new writing challenge on role-playing games called “12 RPGs for the 12th Month” (see the full list of questions here.)

Question 8: 15th to 16th December

Talk about your typical approach to preparation for running an RPG. Is there a particular method you generally follow? What use do you make of published setting or adventure material, if any?

Now THIS is a question I can sink my teeth in.

When I prep for an adventure, I try to start from the player characters, their abilities, and their backstories—either reviewing the existing PCs in an ongoing campaign or creating pregenerated characters for a convention game. In the latter case, however, I usually leave space for some customization at the table, so I don’t know everything about the PCs yet. And for certain systems—such as Fate Accelerated, PbtA games, and most story games—I truly don’t know what characters will show up.

Then I create the cast of GM characters,  the main sets, and power factions, tying them to the PCs if I can. That should include at least one main antagonist and their minions, at least one GM character who needs the PCs’ help, and some bystanders to interact with. All characters and factions will have agendas even if they are very simple; main sets are selected for the potential for loots of interesting things to happen there, for the PCs to interact with the environment.

I build those up into action scenes (not necessarily combat) that will happen at the beginning of each act; I generally plan for two or three acts per adventure. The more we advance into the episode, the less I know about how things will unfold, so I rely on my NPCs’ and factions’ agendas when I react to the PCs’ actions.

With many of the systems I love (e.g., Fate Core/Accelerated, PDQ, HeroQuest, etc.) I can easily improvise stats for NPCs. If the system is on the crunchier side (e.g., Cortex Plus/Prime, Masterbook/Torg, Blue Rose/Fantasy AGE), I pillage from published characters as needed.

Because I start from the player characters and whatever campaign background we already established, I tend to make custom adventures. However, it’s nice to steal from a published adventure if it fits in your game. In that case, I review the adventure, identify the key NPCs, factions, and sets, and make changes as needed. I then examine the scene breakdown and the connections between scenes, think about different outcomes that could result from the players’ choices, and brainstorm for possible responses.

Because I’m deconstructing the published adventure into its building blocks and get ready to reassemble them however makes sense in response to the PCs, the adventure becomes open-ended, just like my home-made scenarios.

I have talked at length before on how I build adventures and use published ones; here are some of my past post that walk through examples step-by-step, including how they changed during play.

Credits: “At The Table,” art by Claudia Cangini for Fate Accelerated (Evil Hat Productions 2013.)

12 RPGs for the 12th Month: Roadblocks

Paul Mitchener came up with a new writing challenge on role-playing games called “12 RPGs for the 12th Month” (see the full list of questions here.)

Question 7: 13th to 14th December

Is there an RPG genre which you sort of like but gives you severe mental blocks. What do you like about it? What are your mental blocks?

Not really. I can play, run, and write in just about any genre, although I may have to tailor it heavily to my preferences; a good example is making steampunk less colonialist.

I do have the same problems with certain fiction genres or  subgenres that I have in other media (books, movies, etc.) For example, I’m not terribly fond of horror, except in a relatively narrow band, and I hate gore-fest horror. I’m also not a big fan of magical realism, it just doesn’t get me engaged.

But I can’t think of an actual mental block, let alone a severe one.

12 RPGs for the 12th Month: Following and Admiring

Paul Mitchener came up with a new writing challenge on role-playing games called “12 RPGs for the 12th Month” (see the full list of questions here.)

Question 6: 11th to 12th December

Do you follow any particular RPG authors? Which RPG authors have works you admire, and what are their stand-out pieces of work?

Wow, is that ever a difficult question. I follow a lot of RPG writers, publishers, and artists, because I like them and their work. I just can’t select a few without omitting so many whose stellar work has given me joy. If I follow you, if we exchange comments about your work, you know it’s because I love it. I’ve probably publicly gushed over your stuff before, and will do so again.

12 RPGs for the 12th Month: We have some history

Paul Mitchener came up with a new writing challenge on role-playing games called “12 RPGs for the 12th Month” (see the full list of questions here.)

Question 5: 9th to 10th December

You’re running a historical or alt-historical game. What place and time in history do you choose? Are you including fantastical elements of any sort, and if so, what?

Where to begin? I love so many (alt-)historical. I particularly love the ones that make me learn about a time and place I am not familiar with. Over my 35 years of gaming, I have learned about so many cultures thanks to reading spurred by games, from Tokugawa-era Japan (playing Bushido Hero) to the Roanoke colony in 1587 (playing Roanoke, of course), to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (prepping for my Monster of the Week campaign), etc.

Actually, screw that—I know exactly where I would to play: in one of the great African empires we never hear about (except as inspiration in a handful of setting books like Nyambe or Spears of the Dawn.) I would like to walk the streets of Koumbi Saleh, capital of the Ghana Empire, meet envoys from the Malinke Kingdom or the Mali Empire, and Takruri traders bringing gold and cotton from Bambuk. I would like to see Axum and Carthage, the Kongo Kingdom and the Mutapa Empire. I would like to walk where I never get to, even in a role-playing game.

Would I include fantasy elements? Yes, I would use legends from the time and place in question, and take them at face value. Shapeshifting, sorcery, monsters, ancestor spirits, orisha… They all sound like wonderful elements to include.