It has been a long journey and I am very pleased with the result. The 2021 edition distills the complex sandbox game from 2017 into a structured story game that produces a consistent play experience. Covid added the online play constraint which worked out well: The loneliness you experience from sitting alone at the end of a fragile video connection to your fellow players adds to the immersion. Add to this the evocative illustrations by Claudia and you get a game that plays like a movie.
Kill your darlings and keep it simple
If there is anything to learn from the process, it is that the old classics are as true as ever. Easy to preach, hard to follow. Take out stuff and trust that players can and will find the cues and handles that will make it their game. Less is more. There is a budget of mental effort for any game. Make every word count and trust that players will connect the dots.
I would like to thank all the play testers and people who gave feedback along the way and helped me produce the best possible game. The game has been 5 years in the making and it feels great to finally put it out there. Enjoy.
I will move on to other projects for a while. A new release of Montsegur 1244 and develop a couple of ideas that have been brewing. Let’s see.
After that I might return to Mars to Stay and create editions in other languages and maybe a print edition.
This week I picked up a package with a copy of Catherine Ramen’s Red Carnations on a Black Grave, a story game about the Paris Commune of 1871, where people of Paris tried to create an egalitarian, socialist state in the chaos following the war with Prussia and the fall of the second French empire.
The box came with a beautiful handwritten thank you note. Catherine Ramen reached out to me in 2017 and informed me of her plans to create a game about the Paris Commune inspired by Montsegur 1244, my game about the Cathar heresy.
Being in the process of relocating to Stockholm, I had unplugged from the gaming scene for a while, and I failed to discover the kickstarter that Catherine successfully ran for the game. It was only as the fulfilment was happening I again became aware of the game, and I immediately ordered a copy of the game and it arrived this week.
It is a great feeling to have inspired others through time and space to create a work of passion and love. While the game has earned a place in my game collection from this backstory alone, let’s take a closer look at how the game is designed and what play experience it promises to deliver.
The game components
The game comes in a beautiful black box with red and white text. A red carnation stands out on the front, a simple and powerful design. The box contains one full color, 128 page book and cards in multiple sets and two sizes: 18 characters cards, 18 fate cards, 10 Bloody Week cards, 33 placard cards, 18 question cards and one flag card.
The cards are sturdy with a reasonable text size for older eyes and a good use of colors and illustrations.
The inner margin in the book is somewhat narrow for this binding. This makes reading from a newly printed copy inconvenient and the pages may come loose in a well used copy. For frequent play, you will want to get a digital copy and print a the parts you need during play. Otherwise, the graphic design is appetising and appealing, with readable fonts and a good amount of dramatic full page color illustrations and smaller black and white details.
The book is divided into four parts: The rules of the game (22 pages), the game (with the story arc to be read during play, 20 pages), historical background (50 pages), and appendices. The historical appendices will both give you a tour of the 90 year history of revolution in France with focus on the final act, the Paris Commune, as well as and take you to Algier, Vietnam, Martinique, and New Orleans. Also in 1871, Paris is a city where people travel to from far away places.
The Paris Commune was a brief but intense revolution during the spring of 1871 led by groups of socialists, anarchists, communists, and other radicals. Together they tried to build a new, egalitarian society that would guarantee work, freedom, and an end to exploitation for all the people in the world.
How the game plays
Red Carnations on a Black Grave is a collaborative story telling game with players taking turn in setting scenes and playing multiple characters. One player also facilitates the game to ensure a smooth and enjoyable game. This includes teaching the rules of the game, including play style and safety rules, and running a debrief after the game.
The game includes 18 characters, all live in Montmartre, a radical working-class neighbourhood of Paris, as the events of the revolution sweeps over them.
Each character card comes with a brief pitch on a card with a framing question, a vocation, and one or more relations to other named characters. In addition, players draw two question cards, and from this, the players flesh out the details of their interpretations of their characters during play.
The game plays in a single session of 4-5 hours. The story that the players create at the table unfolds in a prologue, 3 acts and an epilogue.
In the prologue, the players create a montage of every day life of their characters in the days before the commune. In Acts One and Two, the social revolution of the commune unfolds until it falls in Act Three, where players choose one of their characters to die in the events of the Bloody Week. In the epilogue, each player decides for their remaining character if the character attempts escape, cooperates and hopes for a reduced sentence, or remain defiant and hope to go to trial. They then draw a card that reveals the fate of the character — death, prison, exile, deportation, or labour camp are all far more likely than escaping unharmed.
Hence tragedy is ensured.
Verdict: To play or not to play?
I have no trouble recommending the game just from a read through, and it’s hereby on the top of the list of games to play when table play again is possible. I love how material components like cards facilitate play in a non-intrusive way so table play provides the optimal experience. But such an opportunity may still be a bit down the road, so maybe it’s time to look into how to run it online?
The design looks great and tight. While I can see places where the design of Montsegur 1244 shines through, there are many fine changes and additions that I’m sure push the game towards a strong (and safe) play experience.
Thanks Catherine, for creating a beautiful thing and sharing it with the rest of the world!
(And I’m sure you will not become a radical, anarchist, terrorist, or what-not from spending 5 hours looking through the eyes of someone living at another time and place, but you will get an emotional katarsis and also create a strong bond with your fellow players).
It’s been a little quiet here on the blog, so let me share an update on where I am with Mars to Stay, my story game about the first Martians pursuing the dream of a colony on Mars.
For the online version of Mars to Stay, I used GoogleDocs to edit and share the text. While GoogleDocs isn’t as feature rich as MS Word, it’s great when you want to focus on the content and when you want to share the text with reviewer and play testers (don’t get me started on O365 and the web version of Word). This worked great to get the content as I want it, and it can do a decent job of formatting a pdf for print. Embedding images and controlling size and placement were also not too fiddly.
Let’s get it on Lulu
So with a pdf ready, from there to self publishing on Lulu should be an easy ride. Right? Well, then I got into the wonderful world of the EPUB format. While an EPUB file is basically just a zip file with a bunch of xhtml-files, there is of course a little bit more to it than that before you have a clean file that will pass the quality criteria required for publishing and distribution.
Lulu requires a file in EPUB format with meta data such as ISBN number set correctly. While Lulu offers a tool to create an EPUB file based on a MS Word docx file, I really didn’t feel like letting go of my Mac (or installing Word for Mac, enough said).
Generating EPUB format with GoogleDocs
GoogleDocs can export also to EPUB so I went down that path.
A text like Mars to Stay contains a lot of lists and tables, so besides the nice images I commissioned from Claudia, it took a lot of iterations to get an EPUB file that would also render decent just on the Macs default EPUB viewer. Sections that looked the same in GoogleDocs that absolutely didn’t in the EPUB viewer. While GoogleDocs has some support for managing style sheets, it has its shortcomings.
I was soon to discover one more: When I finally had a decent looking EPUB, I created a project on Lulu for Mars to Stay. Title, ISBN, author, description etc. were all checklist tasks. But when I uploaded the file, a check complained that title and ISBN in the EPUB meta data didn’t match with what I had entered. There is no way to set the meta data in GoogleDocs and have it included in the export.
So how about editing the generated file? It’s just zipped xhtml-files, right? Well, the generated EPUB file from GoogleDocs isn’t exactly humanly readable. Pages, the default word processing tool on Mac, allowed me to edit the meta data for title but not isbn.
Calibre to the rescue
Browsing the internets revealed two candidate EPUB editors for Macs, hidden behind a wall of “we will fix your EPUB format for you” promises (a warning sign that this would not be as easy as I hoped). After convincing Apple that these open source programs not appearing in the App Store is perfectly safe, I got one of them, Calibre, up and running and have now taken it for a spin on Mars to Stay.
These are features I have found useful so far:
Merge identical style definitions. It looks like GoogleDocs creates one instance of a style definition per instance in the document and they all have generated identifiers which makes it practically impossible to get to a consistent layout by editing the source. By merging duplicate entries, it’s still tedious but at least possible.
Find broken links. Fixing them is also doable.
Resize images. One of the formatting requirements on the publishing list is that embedded images are not too large (quite opposite from publishing for print).
Edit meta data like isbn. Hey, this is what I came here for!
Other nice-to-have features I have found are Smarten punctuation, Word count including frequency, and the Table of Content editor. You can feel when software is created by someone who needed it to do the job themselves.
Back on track
So the project is back on track for a planned release any time soon. In the mean while, NASA’s Perseverance rover has sent images and sounds from Mars and the first flight on Mars is imminent.
Mars to Stay is a story game about pursuing the almost impossible dream of building humanity’s first colony on Mars. It is also about making hard choices that define who you are. Originally designed for Fastaval 2017, I picked the game out of the drawer last year and decided to do an edition for online play. Work on Mars to Stay is progressing well:
The fourth playtest is in progress with second session scheduled for later this week. So far I’m very happy with the play experience the game offers and how players take the story seeds I’ve put in and make it their story. I’m down to testing small tweaks. The theme of the game is really enforced by the online format.
Claudia Cangini is putting the finishing touches on the new illustrations and they look awesome.
So far I’ve only seen the new edition played with four players, however, and I would like to test Mars to Stay with 3 and 5 players as well. So if you are up for a trip to Mars, get in touch, and I’ll invite you when I set up the next playtest. If you can get a group of 3-5 players together, you are also welcome to run a playtest of your own.
Montsegur 1244 online
With a little short noice I jumped on an opportunity to run Montsegur 1244 online. Montsegur 1244 is a story game about the Cathars that at the end of a siege in 1244 chose to burn for their belief rather than repent before the inquisition. The game premiered at Fastaval 2008. I managed to get a pretty solid online edition ready and had a great run this weekend. It’s been a while since I’ve played it last time, and it was great to see that it still works and new players take to the theme, story, and rules easily.
The online edition of Montsegur 1244 also needs more playtesting. So if you are into historical drama and have some time on your hands, you are very welcome to take Montsegur 1244 for a spin.
The last six months or so I have been working remotely as a product owner for SimCorp, a company I worked with for many years prior to moving to Stockholm in 2017. The agreement was to visit the headquarter in Copenhagen 2-3 days every month, but due to Covid-19 restrictions, so far I’ve only visited the office once after re-joining.
This has actually worked out quite well! A major reason is of course that I have a long history with SimCorp and know the product and the people well. The technical setup works well, and with almost everyone working remotely, you avoid many of the pitfalls of having remote team members. Actually, I can’t imagine going back to a full 5-day working week in the office again, at least not as long as I have kids living at home, a good internet connection, and an office where I can close the door.
Here are my personal perspectives on working remotely.
What I enjoy from working remotely
Going for a walk in the lunch break or in the morning after bringing kids to school.
Picking up kids early from school and kindergarten and go sleigh riding in the first snow before it gets dark.
Watching recordings of general information meetings at double speed and skip ahead to the important parts.
Reaching out to people on Slack for them to get back to me when they have time.
Having a quiet workspace for concentrated work whenever I want it.
What I don’t miss from pre-covid days
Queuing on the freeway rush hour traffic or in a crowded subway and worrying about not getting to the office in time.
Cruising around looking for the last available parking lot, seeing it taken by another car, and instead going to that faraway parking lot that adds precious 15 minutes to the commute in both directions.
Hoping to make it to school in time to pick up kids to not have your kid being the last kid around for the third time this week.
Going to the airport early morning to visit a nearshore office with my wife being on full time kids duty and my only contact with the kids being a video call just before bedtime.
Forgetting to renew monthly train tickets or optimising the ticket period for the upcoming vacation just to have it been in vain by unplanned sick days.
What I miss about not going to the office
I’m still working on that list.
Well, I guess I should include free coffee and having a clear mental on/off switch for at work/not at work. But most importantly I have enjoyed getting to know new colleagues over coffee and lunch over the years, sharing war stories and venting the occasional workplace issue. Many I still keep contact with and consider friends.
Working remotely is not without drawbacks and pitfalls of course. But I’m sure companies will find ways to embrace and become truly “remote first” companies and be awesome places to work. It’s such a privilege to have a kind of work where this is possible.
Back in 2016-2017 I created a game called Mars to Stay. A game about people travelling to Mars to build humanity’s first colony on the planet. I finished it and it premiered at Fastaval 2017 but I wasn’t really satisfied with the result: I wanted to cramp too much into it, there were too many ideas in the game which made it difficult to play.
It had a game engine based on PbtA with stats and moves and advances specific to each character. It had multiple story lines and lots of freedom for players to choose. The central choice for the characters — whether to stay on Mars or to return to Earth as things go south — lacked a hard mechanic to make it crunchy and deep.
In essence it was a sandbox game where satisfying play depended on a lot of hard work from the game master (and I was blessed with a great team of game masters to carry the game at Fastaval 2017, thanks again).
A few months ago, after having had some good experiences with online play, I revisited the game to see if I could make it work online with a format similar to Montsegur 1244. I.e. as a collaborative story game where players take turn setting scenes and with the story arc driven by text read aloud during play.
Over a weekend I had a skeleton in place and in a week I had a version ready for playtest. The first playtest was good and identified things I could change and improve to enforce and deepen the central choice. The second playtest was great, confirming that less is more, players can work magic with a fixed structure and subtle hints for inspiration. I also learned that playing Mars to Stay online works great: The inevitable technical issues and the loneliness of sitting at the end of a fragile video connection bleeds into play.
So I’ve decided to finish and publish the new version of the game in 2021. I will publish it as PDF and EPUB (digital editions) which makes a lot of things much easier. I’m thinking to sell via Lulu, Indie Press Revolution, and DriveThruRPG. Via Lulu, the game will also be available on Amazon and AppleBooks.
I’ve engaged with Claudia Cangini to add new illustrations to the new version of the game to really enhance the final product. I’ve secured ISBN’s for the game, this was quick and easy to get, thanks, Sweden. A third and a fourth playtest are planned, both without me participating.
So things are on track for publishing a new game in 2021. And why not make an updated version of Montsegur 1244 for online play as well?
Back in the days when I was new to roleplaying, I played a fair share of Chaosium’s RPG Call of Cthulhu. Investigators exploring occult mysteries typically ending in horrible death from untimely confrontations with hideous monsters. While I was never particularly into the horror genre, I did appreciate the historical setting, exploring how is was to “live” in the 1920’s East Coast USA. The game also showed an alternative way to play than the monster bashing party of wizards and elves that came out of the D&D red box that was the gateway drug in Denmark.
My taste buds later got used to drama style games with juicy dramatic choices being more important than detailed simulations of fictional events. However, I still have a weak spot for historical facts that drive conflict and drama.
Then in the Year of the Covid, a group of gifted Swedes published a Swedish edition of Call of Cthulhu. However, it isn’t just a translation into Swedish of the game mechanics and the monster tables — it comes with an intriguing 1920’s Sweden setting and a number of campaigns and scenarios. I checked them out and I realised that 1920’s Scandinavia is an excellent place for the central conflict between science and existential horror.
As I was fortunate enough to now have a semi-stable group of players for online play, I strategically sent a link to Santa — and behold, Santa was kind this year:
It’s a triple win: I get to practice my Swedish, I will learn more about Swedish history and culture, and I get to hang out with friends.
So how does the game check out? (No spoilers here). So far very well. The hard cover, full colour books are beautifully illustrated and the typesetting and editing are great from a first glance. There are juicy historical details, including maps of Stockholm 1926 and Gothenburg 1921, and the sections on how to play are well reflected.
The campaign (which roughly translate to The Bull Figurine from Kingsmoor) will draw the investigators into a conflict between eldritch forces and take them on a trip of urban and country side Scandinavia anno 1926.
From a game design point of view, one thing that the original Call of Cthulhu game failed to generate consistently was the story arc of the rational minded investigator slowly creeping into insanity as existential truths materialize (I recall most games ending in sudden death or sudden insanity). As the slow realisation is a central theme in Lovecraft’s stories (e.g. in At the Mountains of Madness), it seems as a fundamental flaw. From a brief skim, this looks unchanged. However, the setting is great, so let’s see if a good Session Zero can set us off on a good course. Maybe an investigator will be inspired to write a journal to warn the rest of mankind from following the trail into the unknown?
I have played more role-playing games the last six months than I have done for a long, long time. One reason for this is that everyone has moved online so it’s much easier to get a group together. When the alternative is to not play, we can all help find ways to make it work. At some point during the pandemic, we got used to the new smalltalk markers “you are muted”, “I think there is something wrong with my internet today”, and “your voice is breaking off, please try to reconnect”.
I want to share some of my online experiences but first a summary of what I’ve learned about playing games online.
Play for fun
Play should be fun and energising. Video sessions can be draining, especially with many participants. I’ve found that scheduling shorter and more frequent sessions with smaller groups work well. Also, don’t be afraid of the occasional silence and allow for plenty of breaks. Be sure to do a systems check with everyone before jumping in to the game and make room for smalltalk. If someone is not up for playing, either because of a bad day or bad connection, just reschedule. When no one has been sitting in trains or busses to get to the same location on time, the cost of a cancellation is much smaller than attempting to play when the circumstances are not for it.
It’s not about technology
You don’t need fancy technology with integrated dice rollers, ambient music, and gradually revealing maps. Story games are about creating and sharing stories, not about special effects. The important tools are voice and imagination, everything else is optional. A decent video app like Zoom or Google Meet plus a group chat is all you need. For the kind of games I enjoy, throw in the occasional physical dice roll.
Google Docs is good to share and edit documents during play. Or just email character sheets and background material to players before the session. Doodle for scheduling also still works.
It’s a game about people finding themselves completely alone in an otherwise very recognisable world. Friends, family, classmates, neighbours, the clerk in the grocery store, everyone else have disappeared. Our protagonists lives on and tries to come to terms with the situation. Can they find new meaning in a life in solitude as memories of past traumas and unresolved events haunts them, triggered by locations and events in their new, yet familiar world?
A dice-less story game for three players and one game master with pre-defined characters and scenes. A good choice for online play for gamers new to the hobby or with rusty experiences.
I played … and Good Riddance! with three players in three hours including smalltalk. It was fun for me to revisit, a lot has happened in my life since I ran it at Fastaval 11 years ago, and with the pandemic fresh in mind, I related to the game and the stories it generated differently.
While diving into Alexandria.dk (the archive of Danish (Scandianian) rpg conventions) for more games to run online, I came upon The Gargantuan by Troels Ken Pedersen. Not only is Troels extremely productive when it comes to creating games, he also has a very clear idea for what he wants players to achieve with each game, and hence guaranteeing targeted fun (fun in the gut-punching kind of fun you have when you play games addressing heavy subject matter). The Gargantuan is about how language generates racism and classism, and how the ultimate consequence of that is to decide who lives and who dies. The game is set in a steam punk setting with a clear reference to a certain large passenger ship who sank on its virgin journey to the new world.
I ran the game over two sessions with a group from Skåne and we had great fun. The character gallery is quite large so take your time and don’t worry if some of the characters don’t get much screen time. We will remember the bungee jumping goblins in the Rock Bottom bar for a long time and look forward to the sequel(!).
Image from the Wizard Torn
I played Ars Magica a long time ago and it was through that I came to learn about the Cathars and the siege of Montsegur that inspired me to create Montsegur 1244. Five years ago I had a go at a one shot game where I tried to capture the feel of wizards disagreeing with each other and blowing things up, another possible Ars Magica experience. For fun I signed up to run the game at Grand Tribunal, a game convention for Ars Magica fans organised by the very active, likeable, and organised CJ in Cheltenham, UK. The convention goers were a nice international group to hang out with (I had the fun experience to be perceived as a Swede as I had signed up with an address in Sweden) and I enjoyed to run my game for people used to a play style of arcane mystery adventures. I also enjoyed playing in games offered, including the traditional Saturday evening LARP with lots of conflicting secret agendas and plot lines.
A few weeks ago as I cleaned my spam folder, I came upon an invitation to join an online version of the Grand Tribunal, Image from the Wizard Torn, only a couple of days away. As my weekends aren’t busy I signed up for small talk and a game. CJ himself ran an introductory adventure about apprentices sneaking out on Midsummer’s night to have fun at the local fair. Needless to say, we ran into a few more complications along the way, including the accidental kidnapping of the lord of the manor. It’s not often I participate as a player, so it was great fun to take that role for a change. CJ also had some nice tricks for how to socialise 20+ gamers from across time zones and have appropriate talks about cats, kids, history, and playing games.
Same-same but different
Online play is not the same as face-to-face, but it has a lot to offer, also experiences that are unique to the online format. I enjoy to be playing again and to explore how to use the online format for maximum fun.
Respecting the local COVID restrictions we have turned to hiking in the forest every weekend for exercise, fresh air and — weather permitting — a bit of sunshine. As the days get shorter and as both my wife and I work from home, we need to get out. Our youngest on the other hand has to endure: she is outdoor in the kindergarten most of the day and only goes inside for meals and short sessions in smaller groups.
When we moved to Stockholm three years ago our financial realities gave us a choice between moving to a small flat near the center with a short commute or to a larger house with a one hour commute. These days when we both work from home, we enjoy that we chose the latter.
Forests and lakes are abundant around here even 20 km from the centre of a city of more than one million. Freeways and railways cut through rough terrain, and just a short walk away you can get lost in the wilderness. The landscape is the work of the retracting ice leaving steep hillsides with rough boulders to be slowly conquered by pine trees and oaks.
You discover the traces of several thousand years of human activity have left on the landscape. A rune stone mourning the death of a loved one near not far from a memorial spray painted on a concrete wall mourning the death of a loved one. A goodbye-dear-homeland carved into a rock wall from an America emigrant in 1872 not far from the concrete tower blocks welcoming in immigrants since the sixties. A Stone Age petroglyph next to a mosque. Contrasts that make you think.
The local municipalities provide good facilities. Apps and websites show were to go. Parking lots and information boards are easy to find. Paths are marked with coloured dots, wet patches are enhanced by wooden footbridges, and picnic tables and shelters are frequent.
So far we have visited four different lakes in four weekends, all within a 15 minutes drive. Enjoy pictures from our trips.
I spent a lot of time on RPG forums back in the days before Facebook and SoMe stole most of the traffic though never quite delivering the same experience. Well, flame wars definitely happen also on SoMe, but I never quite saw the meticulously argued conversation about a niche topic between a few dedicated and well articulated debaters.
The Danish RPG forum died when Brian pulled the plug on the server and moved to land of the guns. Forge and story games also got quiet until both closed down. I had some RPG chatter on Facebook and Google Plus, but Plus died and I deleted my Facebook account after moving to Stockholm (and after Cambridge Analytica).
So now when raising kids and home improvement projects take less of my time, and I need to get a geek fix, I’m turning to the Swedish RPG forum at rollspel.nu, this has the added benefit of helping me understand Swedish language and culture better.
One example of what a geek forum can do for you is this thread where a person in earnest is wondering if the details of a fictional landscape in certain types of genres have enough influence on the story generated through play.
Well, funny enough, this is actually one design aspect I’m working with in my hack of How We Came to Live Here by Brennan Taylor.