Ugly acronyms: NaBloPoMo

Pen and pencil clipartA lot of my friends participate ever November in NaNoWriMo, an ugly acronym for National Novel Writing Month. I don’t, but I do like to write and this year I’ve been writing a lot. I spent a lot of time in November working on the War of Ashes RPG for Evil Hat Productions, and I also decided to participate in NaBloPoMo, an other ugly acronym for National Blog Posting Month.

I did it sub rosa, I didn’t want to register anywhere or make announcements, but I did manage to post at least one entry every single day. I didn’t cheat; I did use the scheduling feature to write some entries in advance and have them auto-post at the appointed time and day, but I did not back-date anything. As a result, this month saw the highest readership of all times for me.

After a blogging hiatus of a couple of years, the last thirteen months have been good for me, getting back into frequent writing; I see blogging as a place to shape my ideas and to practice the craft, like morning kata for writing skills. And I’ve received heart-warming feedback about some of the materials I have shared, so I count it as a success.

As for the War of Ashes RPG, I’m at 47,000 words today and I’m planning on submitting my alpha playtest draft tomorrow night.

Turkey Day leftovers?

Turkey Pot PieHey, it’s time to make some of my favourite recipes for leftover turkey. In fact in our household, it’s really all about the leftovers. So let’s go dig up last year’s list of my favourite recipes for turkey. And if you have leftover cranberry relish or chutney, you can always do what I did last year as well and add it to this slow-cooker pulled-pork recipe.

Roasted Spaghetti Squash with Sausage

Spaghetti squash in panFor the Thanksgiving potluck, I wanted to have something with squash for theme and season, but I also felt like showing off the home-made sausage I’ve started making since I got a meat grinder.  So this recipe from White on Rice was a great compromise! But since we also have at least one vegan in the group, I decided to also make a meat-less, cheese-less version. Both were very well received at the get-together.

Roasted Spaghetti Squash with Sausage OR Vegan Filling

Yield: Serves 3-4.  Total Time: 1 hour

From: Try not to over cook the squash until it becomes overly soft.  It should still have a bit of a bite to the texture.  If pressed for time to make dinner, since the squash is warmed in the pan with the sausage at the end, one could always roast the spaghetti squash ahead of time and then quickly heat it with the sausage at dinner time.


Sausage Meat-01
Home-made sausage meat

Sausage Filling

(Garlic-fennel sausage from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.)

  • 2.5 lbs (1.1 kg) ground pork. If grinding yourself, which I recommend, use a fatty cut like pork shoulder or pork butt.

  • 2 tsp (10 mL) crushed or chopped garlic (or more)

  • 1 tsp (5 mL) fennel seeds

  • ¾ tsp (3-4 mL) kosher or sea salt

  • ½ tsp (2 mL) fresh ground pepper

  • ⅛ to ¼ tsp (0.5 to 1 mL) Cayenne pepper

Mix in by hand in small batches.  This yields way more sausage than you need for the recipe, so freeze the extra for another dish one of these days.

Bread filling
Bread filling

Bread Filling

Crumble some bread (I used home-made sourdough) and splash with a bit of olive oil. Mix in a good pinch of salt, ½ tsp (2 mL) fennel seeds, crushed or powdered garlic, and pepper. Allow to stand for at least 30 minutes.


  • 1 spaghetti squash (about 3 lbs or 1.4 kg)

  • 2 Tbsp (30 mL) olive oil (divided in two parts)

  • 5 or 6 medium shallots, thickly sliced

  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed or finely minced

  • 3/4 lbs (350 g) uncooked sausage or bread filling

  • 1 cup (250 mL) coarsely grated Parmigiana Reggiano (optional)

  • 1 Tbsp (15 mL) finely chopped oregano, or other herb complementary to the sausage [like fennel for the above]

  • Kosher or sea salt, to taste

  • Fresh cracked black pepper, to taste

Spaghetti Squash
Roasted spaghetti squash


  1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Oil a sheet pan with first 1 Tbsp (15 mL) of olive oil. Slice spaghetti squash in half lengthwise. (Use the tip of the knife to first pierce and get the cut started. Once you get the first cut started the rest of the squash should slice easily.) Scoop out the seeds and strands, then place cut side down on the prepared sheet pan.
    NOTE: Edmund has made the brilliant suggestion that the garlic and shallots could be oven-roasted at the same time and that would probably be really good!  I’ll try it next time.

  2. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the squash flesh separates easily into strands with a fork. Finish loosening and removing the “spaghetti” from the shells and set aside.

  3. Onto a large sheet of butcher paper or similar, pinch and pull small balls of filling, laying them so they stay slightly separate.

  4. Shallots in pan-01
    Shallots and garlic in pan

    Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Heat second 1 Tbsp (15 mL) of olive oil in pan, then add shallots and garlic. Cook until soft, stirring every 30 seconds, then add filling. Cook untouched until bottom side of filling starts to brown, then stir. Continue cooking and stirring occasionally until the filling is cooked through (2-3 minutes depending on heat, type, and size of pieces).

  5. Add spaghetti squash strands to the filling and continue cooking until heated (usually less than a minute.)

  6. Fresh Oregano-01
    Fresh oregano

    Remove from heat. Toss in oregano or other herbs, and if you’re not making this vegan, the Parmigiana Reggiano.  Season with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper (remember the cheese will have a bit of “saltiness” to it already.) Serve immediately.

Photos by Sophie Lagacé 2013, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.



I live in the United States, where the last Thursday in November is Thanksgiving, a national holiday. Many people say it’s their favourite holiday because its only theme is to share food and spend time with family and friends. It’s also a reminder to think about what we have to be thankful for.

I’m thankful that I can manage to go through the exercise this year. There have been a few years when I couldn’t bring myself to, and of course a year when I was physically unable to would be bad.

I’m thankful for family and friends who care. And I’m grateful for Internet friends! No, they may not help me move a couch but sometimes they help me move something just as heavy.

I’m thankful when my cats cuddle with me—even though it’s often untimely.

I’m thankful for the book contract with Evil Hat Productions. It made me very proud and happy.

I’m thankful for creative activities like cooking, art, and writing.

I’m thankful for smooth paper and quality pens.

I’m thankful when I can get some of my mojo back.

Autumn Leaves

War of Ashes RPG: Manoeuvres, Continued

Following up on the post on manoeuvres from a few days ago, here is the illustrated version of what I’m thinking (go read the other post first or this one won’t make any sense).  Note that they have been rephrased in the captions, and example grid-based stunts are now each linked to a different approach—three are attacks, and three defenses.

Zathras is used to being beast of burden to other peoples’ needs. Very sad life. Probably have very sad death, but at least there is symmetry.

The Basic Manoeuvres

Push: When you run into melee by running 2 spaces and succeed in an attack, you can push the opponent back up one space at the end of your action, to any of the three spaces in your front arc. At your discretion, you can end in the same space or only the opponent can be pushed.

Continue reading “War of Ashes RPG: Manoeuvres, Continued”

Casefile: GUMSHOE

Warning right from the start: I recently promised to tackle a few reviews where I would be more critical than complimentary.  This is one.1

Background on the Suspect

The Esoterrorists coverI have talked before about using mysteries in role-playing games, and some of the challenges involved in when you want both the surprise of discovery and characters who feel competent.  The GUMSHOE system was created with this in mind, to avoid the problem of pixel-bitching which happens when players are floundering, looking for an obscure clue that will unlock the next part of the story.

Although it was intended straight from the beginning to be used in several different settings, GUMSHOE was not published as a standalone game; instead, its rules are explained in a customized form for each game they are used in. GUMSHOE first appeared in The Esoterrorists (2007), then in Fear Itself (2007), Trail of Cthulhu (2008), Mutant City Blues (2009), Ashen Stars (2011), and Night’s Black Agents (2012), all published by Pelgrane Press. I have played or run all of these except Fear Itself and Ashen Stars. The publisher recently released a system reference document (SRD) for the core system for game designers who might wish to use it in their products.

Trail of Cthulhu coverThe idea behind the system is simple, clever, and sound:

An investigative game is completely stalled if clues are missed altogether, and since in the genre fiction (novels, movies, etc.) we never see the heroes repeatedly poke around the same scene until they succeed in finding the elusive clue. What is interesting about such games and fiction is putting together the clues, not trying to see them.  Therefore, it makes no sense to ask players to roll pass-or-fail tests in order to locate the very clues that are indispensable to having a story. If you are a capable investigator with the relevant skill, you should just find the clue and move on to building a theory of the crime.

Mutant City Blues coverConsequently, GUMSHOE divides character skills in two groups: investigative abilities and general abilities. If you have even one point invested in an investigative ability and it is relevant to obtaining a particular core clue, no die roll is needed, the gamemaster will just tell you what you find.

For example: If you have the investigative ability “Data Retrieval” and you look at the victim’s computer, you will find the encrypted files that someone tried to erase because that’s a core clue; without it, the game would founder.

Night's Black Agents coverIf there is an opportunity to learn more but it’s not strictly essential to succeeding in the investigation, the GM will indicate that you can also spend a point of an appropriate investigative ability to get special benefits such as supplemental clues. These just provide interesting or useful information that may allow you to prepare better for future events in the story. However, when you run out of points on a particular ability you can’t spend from it anymore and you are limited to getting the core clues.

For example: If you have the investigative ability “Cryptography”, the GM may offer you a chance to spend one point of it in order to get an additional clue regarding the source of the obscure cipher being used in these files. However, you only have one point of Cryptography left to spend and you suspect that you will need it later, so you decline the offer. Without this supplemental clue you’ll still get to a solution but you may not be suspecting who else is involved in this mystery until later clues appear.

General abilities are the running, jumping, climbing trees kind of stuff we’re used to.  You can also spend them to add to your rolls, and they have different refresh rates.

The two types of abilities are rated on different scales, with investigative abilities usually rated 0-3 points and general abilities 0-10 or even more. This is where things start going wrong.

The Prosecution’s Evidence

Having two types of abilities with different ranges and different resolution systems might be a trifle untidy, but we’ve seen it before and it’s not necessarily that big a deal. Unfortunately, there is also an awful lot of disparity among each of the two categories.

By the author and publisher’s own admission, some investigative abilities are used much more often than others. But they all cost the same to purchase at character creation and with advancement, so some of them are just a bad bargain. This is partly compensated by the fact that the GM is encouraged to think in terms of the entire party’s skills, not character by character; it’s true that this means the party as a whole should be able to get through the story, but it also means some players will feel frustrated that their abilities are so cost-ineffective.

General abilities are even more haphazard: even among the category, ratings mark vastly different levels of competence (e.g., sometimes a 4 is pretty useful, sometimes it’s pathetic), resolution can use very different rules, and refresh rates can vary wildly.

Mechanically, although sub-systems vary, the rules are quite simple. However, they lack the narrative punch that other simple systems like Apocalypse World, PDQ or Fate—or Laws’ own Heroquest—lend to equally simple mechanics. In truth, it’s hard to get excited about the action when you’re using the general abilities.

The list of abilities of both types is too long and confusing.  Many of the ability descriptions turn out to mean something quite different from what one might guess from the name of the ability. To complicate matters, some general and investigative abilities have similar names and special rules allow some crossover between the two types of abilities.

Finally, it’s difficult to get a sense of whether a character is half-way decently designed until you’ve been playing for a while even when you are experienced with the system, because of the great variability in usefulness among both investigative and general abilities.

It feels like the primary problem is that at the very beginning, the question of what is an ability and how it should work was never convincingly answered, so now the basic structure goes unexamined and the adjustments from setting to setting are performed by tweaking the ability list. But is it even necessary to have two types of abilities? Couldn’t you simply have one type and give each a wide knowledge penumbra? Many systems make good use of this idea.

And why multiply the abilities when they overlap so much? I assume that the intent is to allow to customize different investigative specialists, but you could do that with much simpler and more universal means than a long list of abilities that always turns out to be missing some specialities anyway.

The Defense’s Arguments

The idea behind the system is a good one. There’s no doubt that Laws identified a crucial flaw of “traditional” role-playing games when it comes to investigative games such as murder mysteries, police procedurals, X Files-style spookiness, etc. His answer to the problem is a very valid one, as far as use of the investigative abilities go.

The system is simple. It may be inconsistent and kludged, but it’s not complicated. At its base, it’s just roll a d6 versus varying levels of difficulty and spend a few points if you want.

It would not be that hard to fix the glitches or to import the base concept into your favourite system. In fact, every time I play or read a GUMSHOE game, I’m itching to re-write its system. But it’s less work to simply borrow the core idea (i.e., “don’t make the players roll if failure means the story will stall.”)

Finally, it’s possible that all this time I’ve been doing something drastically wrong with this game; I just wrote about doing that with other games in the past. However, I feel I gave it a long fair try in several incarnations with different groups and the light bulb has not come on. Perhaps the system or explanations themselves can be improved.

The Verdict

What I am not saying: I’m not saying that it’s a bad system, an unworkable system, or that a good GM and players can’t have a great campaign with it. I’m also not saying that the author and publisher are not good at what they do (they are!), nor that you are wrong or stupid if you enjoy this family of games.

What I am saying: In its current form(s), I don’t think GUMSHOE can be called a good system. It’s a good idea, and it’s a workable system, but it needs an overhaul to live up to its promise. I hope this will happen because I would love to love GUMSHOE.

It is, however, something you can steal ideas from, something you can tinker with to make it better, and something that is worth paying attention to.

1 Disclosure: I’m a fan of Robin D. Laws’ work in designing role-playing games and in providing helpful advice to players and gamemasters.  I keep recommending his book of advice Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering (Steve Jackson Games), I loved his games Feng Shui (Atlas Games) and Skulduggery (Pelgrane Press), his Heroquest (Moon Design Publications) is one of my go-to systems, I play-tested Og: Unearther Edition (Firefly Games) and Mutant City Blues (Pelgrane Press), I loved his work on supplemental material for Over The Edge (Atlas Games) and Glorantha/Hero Wars/Heroquest (Issaries), and I recently talked about how I’d enjoyed running his new game Hillfolk (Pelgrane Press), though it will merit a whole review some day soon. I hope I’ve established my credentials as a gushing fan, so at least I won’t be accused of being a hater. Return.

Apocalypse World and Fate: Flavours

Following my earlier post comparing Apocalypse World (Lumpley Games) and Fate (Evil Hat Productions): expanded observations on how the two games feel at the game table, both as player and as gamemaster.

Cover: Apocalyse WorldThe Apocalypse Tastes Funny

The biggest difference between the two is that Apocalypse World comes with a default setting. I suspect that it would be very difficult to grasp the game’s value if it had started as a pure system, because you need to experience it to see how the parts come together. So yeah, it was a good choice to release it attached to a setting.

But I don’t like the flavour of this setting.  That’s a strange thing to say, I know, because most of it gets created in play, and also because I absolutely love some very similar settings in other games, most obviously Jared Sorensen’s octaNe (Memento Mori Theatricks).  But the seeds of setting contained in AW, in the character playbooks and in what the rules reward, produce a world that is unpleasant to me and more importantly, characters I don’t want to play.

It’s a subtle effect, and I can’t very well describe it except as “the wrong flavour,” like some people love Coke but hate Pepsi, love regular coffee but hate chicory coffee.  The flavour is obviously pleasing to some people, and equally obviously unpleasant to me.

I believe this dislike is largely due to the feeling that the characters are invited, mechanically-speaking, to exploit, manipulate, dominate, and generally use others (PCs or NPCs).  That’s not what I like to play.  And yes, you can play someone who doesn’t do that, but there is no built-in reward for it — on the contrary; that means you will pass up on opportunities not only for success in play, and not only for advancement, but also for getting involved in the action.

  • For example, characters gain experience for seducing or manipulating others (pp. 87, 179, 186, 197).
  • Several moves involve using others or bending them to your will: pack alpha, seduce or manipulate, most sex moves, most brainer moves, etc.

I guess my disconnect starts with the play agendas (pp. 96 and 108). I appreciate that the agendas are clearly expressed; the players’ agenda is listed as:

  • Play your characters as though they were real people, in whatever circumstances they find themselves—cool, competent, dangerous people, but real.

The gamemaster’s agendas are:

  • Make Apocalypse World seem real.
  • Make the player characters’ lives not boring.
  • Play to find out what happens.

But those are not my objectives.  They don’t work for me, or at least they don’t suffice. I take “real” here to mean vivid and believable, which is nice, but it’s not the end-all and be-all of my gaming either as player or as gamemaster.  “Not boring” is also uninspiring; we all have “not boring” hectic or frustrating days that still don’t provide any drama or entertainment, so I hold my gaming to a higher standard. And finding out what happens only matters if something in the game captured my heart.

Finally, a pet peeve: each session one player and the GM each highlight one stat on your character sheet, and these are the ones for which you’ll mark advancement or experience this session, each time you use these stats. Thus, each player’s path to reward for a given character is shaped entirely by two other people’s choices every episode. I prefer to choose for myself in which direction I want my character to evolve.

In Play

So my play experience with AW, even with sterling GMs and players, was not bad, but it didn’t tell me why people were in love with this game. From the player’s side, the mechanics work fine and have the advantage of offering a known mechanical result for every move and die roll, greatly limiting the GM’s power to be arbitrary; but I didn’t care because I’m used to high-trust games and great GMs.

To make things more of an uphill battle for me, the two most popular published hacks of the system are Dungeon World (Sage Kobold Productions) and Monsterhearts (Buried Without Ceremony)—and I like neither dungeon-crawling nor teenage angst stories, despite my interest for the innovations that both bring to the system.

Cartoon version of the TardisIt’s only when I played in Jeremy Tidwell’s own Companions hack that I finally started appreciating the AW system. Jeremy did a lovely job of using the AW tools to match the flavour of the better Doctor Who moments. In his hack, you play the former Companions of the Doctor after his death.  The TARDIS has started acting on its own, and mysteriously fulfilling his agenda, forcing the companions back into their old lives as its agents.

Companions replaced the exploitive and manipulating elements of the original setting and their mechanical implementation with beautiful, simple little rules bits that instead promote self-sacrifice, suspense, and sometimes giving up a confrontation when the stakes are wrong (“Run!”) It provided excellent Whovian flavour to every game.

I had a great time playing Companions and the action did start getting greater than the sum of the parts; I eventually decided I needed to try running it myself to get a different perspective.  And indeed I started to understand the attraction of the AW system: it’s a book for GMs.  It’s essentially a system of recipes to make the GM’s life easier in prepping for and running games, a codified book of GMing advice, most of which I agree with (with the exceptions above).

The big AW challenges for me as GM were linked to proper use of the moves:

  • Getting used to thinking in terms of moves felt constricting, although I think with practice they just become building blocks. If you constantly lack the right moves for a setting, maybe you need to re-examine the list, see if any have been misunderstood, poorly expressed, or need tailoring.
  • Fairness and disclosure are necessary of course, but also mean giving all the necessary information at the right time for players to pick their moves. In other words, sometimes you need to sacrifice part of a “big reveal” or suspense moment in order to paint a very clear picture for the players before they can act.
  • Moves funnel the action, so it’s possible to get into a sort of domino effect where because move A was used then the next most logical choice will be B, then C… A skilled GM could probably use this like a quasi-rail for a plot, an unskilled one could paint herself in a corner. If no moves readily presents itself, you’re essentially in a video game cut scene, waiting for the game to load to the next decision point. The GM needs to immediately present something that will generate move options.

A down-to-earth problem: Getting around in the AW book, finding the info you need when you’re on the spot, can be a bother. It’s perfectly well organized as reading material or while you’re prepping, but it’s not as smooth when you’re looking for a specific reference in the middle of the game because each element is discussed in several different places in the book.

Chewing Bits of Fate

The Cunning Cat CaperMy original experience with Fate, like a lot of gamers’, was with Spirit of the Century, which in turn was based on an earlier version of the system.  The structure reminded me of Theatrix (Backstage Press), a game I had dearly loved, though the resolution mechanics were of course different. I liked Spirit of the Century well enough, but my experience was not more “pulpy” than it had been with Adventure! (White Wolf), Hollow Earth Expedition (Exile Game Studio), or Feng Shui (Atlas Games).  I tried playing, I tried running, and it still was just “nice.”

I felt that there were too many character aspects to use them all, let alone want to try creating temporary aspects in play. I kept feeling I never had the right skill or it never was high enough. I described the game at the time as “The most complicated simple system I’d ever played.” A few years later came The Dresden Files RPG, and we played that too because both my husband and I kept thinking we were missing something with these two games, we weren’t “doing it right.”

And we weren’t.

Everything changed with Fate Accelerated! I’ve described in a previous post what the changes were in Fate Core and Fate Accelerated, so I don’t want to repeat it here; suffice it to say that my concern regarding the number of aspects and the clarity of why you’d want to create temporary aspects in play were completely addressed.  The new system’s choice of four clearly explained actions types with a gradation of success, and FAE’s approaches instead of a list of skills, made all the difference.

As soon as we tried to play it, the light bulb came on. The very first time I used the action “create an advantage”, everything became clear. And newcomers to role-playing picked this up effortlessly! Those who are still struggling with Fate, especially Fate Core, are almost always long-time gamers like me. We have gamer cobwebs in our brains, we keep thinking in terms of having the right skill for the specific test, but that’s not how Fate works. Fate is powered by what we imagine and provides the scaffolding and tools to build it.

Then I went back to play Fate Core with its longer list of skills and finer dials, and now it really works! I was doing it wrong all along. Armed with the experience I gained with Fate Accelerated, I now feel comfortable with the level of detail in Core and it no longer bogs me down.

In the particular game where I realized this, we had only two players, a smart and really nice young woman and myself; we picked from a collection of pre-generated characters (it was at a convention) and we deliberately picked two characters that in many ways were alike—thus making sure that certain skills were not, in fact, covered by the party. Instead of worrying about whether we had a certain skill, we used or created circumstances to our advantage, we made use of our strengths and worked around our weaknesses. It was a flawless game. It was the kind of evening when you think, “The authors of this game wrote it just for this.”


  • Very often, one needs a little practice with a new system before its qualities really shine; this is why I no longer write game reviews based only on reading the system, but only “actual play” reviews.
  • Sometimes the system only comes into its own once you’ve tried it from the GM’s perspective; a lot of its virtues may be hidden to the players.
  • You also need a setting, characters, and plot you’re interested in, plus half-way decent GM and players, if you’re going to appreciate a game.
  • It’s possible to play a game for years without really “getting” it.
  • However, while some gamers who feel they do “get” it are quick to yell “You’re doing it wrong!”, sometimes there are barriers to play right there in the book.
  • Sometimes these barriers can be removed by trial and error, by playing with different people, by a rules revision, etc.
  • And by the way, sometimes, a game is just not going to be for you no matter how much other people like it.  That’s OK, it means neither that it’s a bad game nor that your a bad player, just that it’s not a good fit. Maybe some day someone will make a hack that changes everything, but until then, you have your choice of other great games.

Caturday: Cat Pile

I’ve seen everyone’s babies, dogs, bunnies and selfies. Now it’s Caturday and by gum I’m going to post pictures of my cats. All day.

This is our two current household gods, in Transformer configuration trying to form Mega-Neko.

Cat pile: Valentine and Ubaid

Photo © Edmund Metheny 2013, used with permission.

Caturday: Claude

I’ve seen everyone’s babies, dogs, bunnies and selfies. Now it’s Caturday and by gum I’m going to post pictures of my cats. All day.

This is Claude, a feral stray we didn’t have with us long enough. When we coaxed him into our house and managed to get him seen by a veterinarian, he turned out to have FeLV (feline leukemia virus). We had to keep him and his food completely segregated from our other cats (at the time, Eurekatous and Mrs. Pedecaris), but luckily the configuration of the house allowed that. He died only a few years later, but it was a joy to see him turn from feral killing machine to lap cat.


Photo © Edmund Metheny 1998, used with permission.

Caturday: Mrs. Pedecaris

I’ve seen everyone’s babies, dogs, bunnies and selfies. Now it’s Caturday and by gum I’m going to post pictures of my cats. All day.

This is Mrs. Pedecaris, a foundling who adopted us in Quebec during our honeymoon in 1996. She had taken refuge near the dumpster outside a restaurant we ate at. We tried to find her home, or a new one, but failed, so we kept her. She was name for the character played by Candice Bergen in The Wind and the Lion because, as Sean Connery’s character the Raisuli (a Berber chief with a Scottish slur): “Mrs. Pedecaris, you a grreat deal of trrouble.”  We miss her and her habit of nesting on top of the old CRT monitor and falling on the keyboard.

Mrs. Pedecaris

Photo © Edmund Metheny 1996, used with permission.