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.
From https://tbe.se (Healthcare Media): “Lethal tick disease more common than previously known” and “2017: More cases than ever before”.
Plus plenty of pictures of ticks and kids. I’m reminded by the scene in The Truman Show where Truman visits a travel agency to buy a plane ticket and there is a poster of a plane being hit by lightning on the wall behind the sales agent.
Into the sales funnel
Ticks are common also in Denmark and Skåne where I lived before, and while I was taught from childhood to check for ticks and too look out for infection, the danger was Borelia, another tick-borne disease, for which there is a cure (antibiotics, if given early). However, in certain areas, ticks also carry TBE, and one of these areas is the Stockholm region.
So as a good parent, I was naturally fully intended on getting the family vaccinated. Who wouldn’t want their kids to go play in a forest? Which parent doesn’t do their best to protect their kids against the dangers of the world?
First summer in Stockholm came and went without us getting vaccinated (or infected), we were busy doing other things. When life started to calm down — and triggered by the ever present reminders all around — I looked into the practicalities of how to get it done. But there was one thing that was nagging me: Sweden generally provides good public health care, at least for kids, with vaccine programs and regular health checks. So if TBE is so dangerous, why doesn’t Sweden provide the vaccine for free?
So I looked into the facts.
What is the risk of catching TBE?
According to the Swedish health authorities, the number of TBE cases reported per year in the Stockholm region are:
2017: 146 or 6,32 per 100 000 inhabitants
2018: 116 or 4,94 per 100 000 inhabitants
2019: 98 or 4,12 per 100 000 inhabitants
The numbers I have cited are the cases reported as infected in Sweden. The region of Stockholm contains about 2.3 million people.
For comparison, the number of people who have tested positive with Covid-19 in the Stockholm region so far is above 15 000. However, the vaccine has been around for some time now and I don’t know how many in the Stockholm region has been vaccinated. Maybe we are the last four in the region who hasn’t got our shots?
Checking other sources, here is from CDC: “The overall risk of acquiring TBE for an unvaccinated visitor to a highly endemic area during the TBE virus transmission season has been estimated at 1 case per 10,000 person-months of exposure.”
Also, even if you happen to catch TBE, most cases are mild. Again from CDC: “The European subtype is associated with milder disease, a case-fatality ratio of <2%, and neurologic sequelae in up to 30% of patients. “
Say we are exposed to ticks for one month per year through our behaviour, this puts the odds of someone in the family catching TBE at less than once per 10 000 summers of outdoor activity.
What does the vaccine do?
Vaccines are not miracles, even if they come close. To be fully effective, three doses must be given over one year, with a re-vaccination every 3-5 years.
From the Swedish Health Authority: “After three doses according to the normal time table, almost 100% of the vaccinated is protected for at least three years”
Not bad. Each dose cost around 400 SEK. So the family could be protected for three years for just under 5 000 SEK.
Why doesn’t Sweden provide a free vaccine?
Åland (between Sweden and Finland) provides a free vaccine to its citizens while Sweden has chosen not to do so. In my search to understand why, I found a study by the Swedish Health Authority from December 2018 which clearly examines the costs and benefits for three different vaccine programs.
Essentially doing the same calculations as above, the study concludes that it is not cost effective to provide publicly sponsored vaccination.
The cost of saving one life-year lands at way above 1 000 000 SEK per year in all of the scenarios. While the study does not put an exact break-even number — as this is essentially a political question — it does state that costs of more than 1 000 000 SEK/year is generally perceived as not cost effective.
This leaves the market open for the commercial actors to convince people like me that what they offer is of value to me. Looking at the dropping number of reported TBE cases for 2019, it looks like they have been very succesful doing this. Or maybe the ticks just didn’t like the hot and dry summers of 2018 and 2019.
My personal risk appetite is definitely higher than 1 per 10 000. So I decided to not get us vaccinated but rely on the well known prevention measures: Wear long trousers and closed footwear when going into the forest, check for ticks when returning home, pay attention also to worn clothes. That saves the family three trips to a clinique and cash for a new iPad. It’s not like we are camping in the archipelago every weekend anyway.
Now after looking into the details, I can safely walk past the infomercials and still feel like a good parent. Of course, if it so happens that one of my kids gets bitten by a tick that causes a serious case of TBE, I will have to live with the consequence of knowing that I — maybe — could have prevented it. Or, hang on, maybe I should buy the kids an insurance, another heavily-marketed product in Sweden…?
It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, … it is a time like any other time.
When Charles Dickens wrote the introduction to a Tale of Two Cities, he was writing a historical novel about the French Revolution. Many times since first reading his gripping story, the first sentence in the book has resonated with me when the present has presented itself from its worst and best sides. Trump, Brexit, and Corona, but also smartphones, drones and internet everywhere.
For me personally, Corona Time has meant lots of quality time with my wife and kids. After the initial disruption and the re-discovering what is valuable, important, meaningful and possible right here, right now, we have enjoyed many great moments.
We live in a beautiful spot with forest and lakes close by, in a suburbia with bike lanes, play grounds, shopping facilities, and still close to nature. A few weeks ago, I took off the supporting wheels on Sofie’s bike at her own request, and soon after she was biking on two wheels. This Sunday, we went to Hågelbyparken, a 3 km ride each way, to enjoy the afternoon sunshine with Sofie biking herself both ways. Saturday on the way back from a car trip to the south tip of Botkyrka, a mother elk and her young kid were grazing in the evening sun right next to the road as we passed by.
It is more than 2 months since I’ve been in the city center of Stockholm and I don’t miss it.
From change comes opportunity
I was laid off from my job a few weeks ago. It’s never fun, but it was the right decision for the company. I was in a strategic position with a short notice period. It was great to get to know the company, but also great now to get to re-invent myself. At work, I had a colleague argue “it has been like that for 15 years, we can’t change that”, while at the same time, outside, people stopped going to concerts, movies, and plays, and stopped visiting relatives and holding parties. A time of change is a time of opportunity, rules are being rewritten.
I’m half way in my professional life, I’ve worked in the space between technology and business for 20 years. I’ve written code, designed libraries, frameworks and tools, I’ve initiated, executed and closed projects. I’ve set up a company to launch a hobby project. I’ve picked up countless new technologies (and vaporised buzzwords) and I’ve worked with lots of smart people. I’ve met my wife at work and we moved to Stockholm to explore new opportunities.
And still the best is yet to come.
So I’m discovering the job market in Stockholm (again). We hear a lot about the companies that are hit hard by the crisis. But there are winners as well as losers. Plenty of open positions are being posted on LinkedIn, at least the kinds I qualify for. So, to land a good next job, is like playing a game or optimising a process, both of which I enjoy!
Here are some insights I’ve gotten so far:
Python & Data Science is hot!
LinkedIn Learning does have good quality content!
Covid-19 has shown that working full time remote is possible! But companies and recruiters have not yet found out!
Getting into Python and Data Science could be great fun — let me explain why.
I first came upon Python 20 years ago. I was fascinated with the core design principle, the Colombo egg of having white space replacing the semantic meaning of curly braces and semi colons. And then, having learned Matlab at university, it felt very familiar.
Then I joined SimCorp and became an APL programmer for 10 years. APL is one of the inspirations for Matlab and Python. APL has a run time interpreter and awesome native array support for working with vectors and matrices. The one thing that puts most people off is the non-ascii characters, which certainly impose a learning curve for newcomers. For SimCorp, this meant establishing its own training programme and developing lots of libraries internally.
I also came upon Daniel Ross’ talk from PyCon Sweden 2019 on why Python is huge in finance, well worth half an hour of your time.
Data Scienceis all around us
Well, what is data science? Beyond the hashtag and buzzword, it is about using domain knowledge and statistical and mathematical models to understand and analyse data. Funny enough, back in my university days, I put together a master program in applied mathematics for myself with courses in numerical analysis, optimisation and data fitting, and a thesis in stochastic calculations. So getting into data science is quite like going back to the roots.
The arrival of Covid-19 has popularised modelling and data-driven decision making as never before and correct understanding of a phenomena and the data are crucial for life-and-death decisions these days. In the next Netflix drama, a Data Scientist will be played by cool, young, diverse actor and — in the voice of a prophet — correctly predict the consequences of messing with the laws of nature.
Let me leave you with one final link, an extraordinarily informative presentation of the concepts of epidemiology we now hear every day: https://ncase.me/covid-19.
This morning I caught a rat. We haven’t seen them for a long time, but yesterday I saw one in our winter garden* and set a trap.
Rats was one of the surprises that came with moving to Stockholm. I guess it comes with many people living “close to nature”, with lakes and forests and dumpsters.
We discovered their presence shortly after moving in and soon took our precautions. I sealed off entries into the house and under the house, I removed all bushes near the house, we keep the doors closed and the lawn short, we don’t leave food around outside and garbage goes into closed bins only. I also bought a trap and competed with the neighbours to get the most kills, at least those who still cared.
The autumn where they renovated the sewers under the house, the rats were running around in the play ground in broad daylight.
The last year or so has been quiet on the rat front though. So yesterday’s visit was a surprise. Some quick troubleshooting revealed the issue: My wife had left a bag with stale bread in a plastic bag in the winter garden.
Because of the Holodomor*, Ukrainians never throw away food. In spite best effort, we still fail to consume what we buy from time to time before it is spoiled, and as we don’t have animals — at least some we want to keep around — we do sometimes end up with food waste. So we go feed the ducks in the lake with the kids every now and then. Yesterday we were overdue. Today we caught up.
As everyone else we are impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, trying to hit the right level of changed behaviour to stay safe while still carrying on living. Oskar’s party is postponed. My business trip to Denmark this coming week is off. Easter vacation in Denmark to open the summer house for the season is at minimum shortened.
A time of change is a time of opportunity. More time playing with the kids and to enjoy the spring.
Take care, stay safe. Wash hands, cough in your sleeve, and don’t leave food around for the rats.
Winter garden. With four different languages around at home and after being confused about the Swedish term ‘uterum’ which both means outhouse and an unheated room in extension of a house, we decided to officially name the rooms in our house to at least be consistent. While we do keep flowers the room, it is maybe more aspirational to call it the winter garden, it’s mostly where we store boxes and garden furniture in the winter.