Mars to Stay: T-29

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.

About to board Hermes who will take you to Mars. Illustration: Claudia Cangini. Copyright 2021.

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.

#MarsToStay2021

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.

#Montsegur1244Online

Mars to Stay

Coming to a web shop near you in 2021.

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).

Claudia Cangini came up with the retro poster look for the front page illustration. I love how the retro look in this and the other illustrations generates a tension with the idea that life on Mars will be an inevitable utopia.

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.

Shane the Visionary living the dream of life on Mars.

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?

The Call of Cthulhu

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.

A detail from a nearby house in my local neighbourhood in Botkyrka, Sweden. Copyright Frederik Jensen 2020.

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: 

The Swedish edition of Call of Cthulhu with the campaign book “The Bull Figurine from Kingsmoor” shown on top.

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?

The joys of lockdown: Online play

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.

A laptop with a headset, pen and paper for notes, and dice to get that good old dice feel. We had two great sessions with my hack of How We Came to Live Here, set in a mythical, pre-colonial American South West. Copyright Frederik Jensen 2020.

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.

Oh, and of course you need people to play with.

And good riddance

The first online game I got in after the Summer was a re-run of the scenario … and Good Riddance! by Malik Hyltoft.

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?

Waiting for the train to Copenhagen at an almost empty train station (Södertälje Syd). I had one work trip to Denmark in September before everything closed down again. Copyright Frederik Jensen 2020.

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.

The Gargantuan

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(!).

No, there is not much spelunking in the games I play these days. Copyright Frederik Jensen 2020.

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.

I found (a) Quest

So I’ve started designing a new game. It’s a text adventure based on the Quest engine and it’s an adaptation of Montsegur 1244, my game about the fall of Montsegur in 1244 at the end of the Albigensian crusade in what is today southern France (1).

A digital game 

Up until now, I have only created analog games, mostly tabletop RPGs for game conventions like Fastaval. Creating and publishing Montsegur 1244 in 2008 — 2010 was great fun. 

As my kids grow older, I see a lot of good (and some not-so-good) games on the iPad. I also enjoy playing games on my smartphone. It’s like the smartphone format takes everything down in size, making it a one man project to create and publish a game app. It’s ok that you only play a game for a couple of hours, when you only pay 2 EUR for it. Plus you can reach a large audience. 

While I enjoy pushing cardboard, dice, and meeples in the company of other people as much as any other, I’m also looking at a lot of boxes on shelves (and toys on the floor and books on shelves) and clearly seeing the advantages of digital content. Travel light, travel far. 

So I’ve decided to create a digital game. 

The Old Town of Tallinn from our visit in November 2019. While Norman nobles were busy fighting heretics in Provence, the Danish king took the crusade to the “heretics” in Baltikum. Not far from where I took this picture, the Danish flag, Dannebrog — according to legend — fell from the sky at the Battle of Lyndanisse in 1219. Copyright Frederik Jensen 2019.

Quest 

A few weeks ago I began looking into tools and platforms for creating games on the IPhone. Very quickly I found Quest at http://textadventures.co.uk. It is a platform for creating and running text adventures. 

Quest is open source on the MIT license, which means that you keep the door open for a commercial launch. It is super easy to get started, as there is an online editor where you can create rooms and characters and start playing almost immediately. So that is what I did. The feature set and the stability were good, even if it is a bit slow to play online.

A deadline

Since moving to Stockholm, I’ve mostly played games with my friend Oskar when I found time for playing. Oskar will be 40 next month, and when I asked about what he wanted, he said no presents, please — or to make a donation. 

So I’m thinking to publish the game by then for him to play when he is turns 40. It’s a good time box. Deadlines are good to help focus on what is important. 

Making hard choices

While I enjoyed puzzle games as much as any other (Day of the Tentacle, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), I don’t want to create a puzzle game for my adaptation of Montsegur 1244. I don’t want players to discover a one true story about the siege, but rather have each play-through generate a story with a statement about why people choose to burn for something they believe in (quite literally in this case (2)). Essentially it is not about finding out how to do what you want but finding out what you want to do and making hard choices in a difficult situation.

Into the trenches

Obviously my ambition leads to more work as Quest aims at scripted events and interactions and now I’m heading into sandbox territory. So this weekend I took a deep dive into writing a custom library in the scripting language of Quest. My goal was to make it possible to sneak past the crusaders but only when it is dark. Something like:

> Wait until evening

You wait until evening. It gets dark.

> Sneak past guards

You sneak past the guards without a sound and escape from Montsegur.

It took a while, learning a new language and new tools, but now I got a time tracker that can keep track of when it is light and dark outside and run the commands above. Furthermore, it triggers events such that characters can go to bed when it gets dark, wake up at dawn and go find something to eat.

So what’s next? I guess I need to model relations between characters and how they influence the decisions at the end of the game.


1. My first idea was actually to create a cat petting simulator, but someone already did that.

2. Trapped inside Montsegur was more than 500 followers of the Cathar Faith. At the end of the siege, they were given the choice to repent or to burn alive. More than 200 chose death.

The best greens

Today’s headline steal from Trump is that he contemplates buying Greenland from Denmark. Maybe he is playing the long game after all? Or maybe he just likes the photo opportunity when he invites world leaders from fossil fuel economies to play golf with him in front of a melting glacier.

I visited Birka a few weeks ago, “the first city in Sweden”. For a few hundred years, it was a trading hub bringing people together near and far. Objects from today’s India, Egypt and Ireland have been found in or near the area. The city was abandoned by the end of the 10th century, some two hundred years before Stockholm was founded. In between, Sigtuna prospered.

Birka today. Burial mounds remain but all houses were made from wood and are long gone. Copyright Frederik Jensen.

One possible reason that Birka was abandoned is the change of coast line as the land rose following the melting of the ice from the last ice age. In this part of the world, near Stockholm, the land has risen 5 meters in the last 1000 years. When you compare it to the sea rise predictions from the melting of the inland ice on Greenland, it’s quite significant.

So anyway, back to Trump and Greenland, if you put your money on that we will fail to reduce the impact of the climate change, buying property in Greenland is a long term bet. It fits into a narrative to delay the burst of the carbon bubble.

200 years ago, people thought buying prisoners of war, sailing them across the Atlantic Ocean and selling them into slavery was a perfectly fine thing to do. 40 years ago, people thought drinking 10 beers and driving a car home was ok. Two years ago people thought burning fossil fuel to fly around the planet for pleasure was ok. Times are changing. Will Trump be on the winning side of history?

I made my claim to say “I told you so” with my 2012 story game Plus 3.0 when it all goes up in smoke and tears.