What Does The Game Look Like?

I was recently asked what the Game looks like when we play it. It's a tough question to answer because it doesn't really look like a game. It looks like seven middle-aged men sitting around a table, talking, and making occasional notes. It looks like a board meeting:

Because 90% of the Game takes place in our heads. We use some visual aids--my terribly drawn maps, or sometimes a plan with counters or models on it (that's what you see in the centre of the image above: my visual representation of the situation the players are in as they figure out how to board an enemy vessel without being overcome by a swarm of killer robots)--but they aren't the Game. The Game is pure imagination.

The Game looks like the week I spend thinking up a new storyline:

The Game looks like the hour I spend after each session updating my records:

The Game looks like the thousands of pages of documentation I've written (small section of it shown here):

The Game looks like the shelf-full of reference books I read to give it the illusion of believability:

The Game looks like the random notes I write in my plot book in the middle of the night, for reasons which escape me but which might get used for something one day:

But what the Game really looks like is entirely in the heads of the six players, because what they think it looks like is more important than all of the above. It looks like their ideas, and plans, and character interactions, and annoying, confounding, frustrating interactions with my plots. That's what the Game looks like to me. I have no idea what it looks like to them...

Space ship!

Sometimes I get hung up on unimportant details. I don't actually need deck plans for a Star Guard cruiser. But having them adds depth to the world. It lets me refer to it in a story and have everybody visualize what I mean. 

This is just a rough first draft. We've already talked this through and come up with multiple improvements.

The key was getting the scale right. This is a ship where a team of Type-A personalities is going to live together for weeks on end, often isolated from contact with the rest of the universe. You need plenty of personal space. So each crew member gets a suite of rooms with about 60 square meters. You also need plenty of recreational areas, including a large area to train and hone your super powers.

With this scale decision made, the first problem is deck height. Because the ship is a sphere, making it that far across made it, obviously, the same height. This suddenly made each deck four metres high, which sounds ludicrous.

But in the best tradition of turning a problem into an asset, a four metre ceiling clearance means you've got space to accommodate extra-tall alien races, plus room for any crew member with the growth super-power to exercise it.

It's all coming together...

Changing the Guard

I just spent several minutes with a player, debating whether to put the teleport platform on the bridge deck or somewhere else. Actually, I was really just debating it with myself, thinking through the arguments out loud, while he waited for me to decide so he could update the deck plans.

Hold on, let me back up a step.

I was going to base the players' star ship on a Gazelle class close escort from an old Traveller game supplement. One of my players spent hours scanning the published deck plans, cleaning them up, and changing them according to my random whims. Then, last week, with around ten days to go before the new Game, I changed my mind. A close escort is too small, I needed to use the Broadsword class mercenary cruiser from a different Traveller supplement. The same player has spent hours scanning and cleaning up the deck plans, and of course I am making sweeping changes as things occur to me. So far, out of eight decks, I'm happy with our redesigned layout of just two of them. Five days to go before the Game...

Hold on, we're still in the middle of the story. Let me back up another step.

The Game that began with Strikeforce all those years ago has spent the last several years leaping between different time periods as I fill in the history of the entire universe. I have been slowly wrapping up the last six months of adventures set in World War Two, with the plan of setting the next six-month (or so) segment in outer space.

This was supposed to be easy, for three reasons.

(1) Every new era I play, I use a different set of rules; something that is appropriate to the era and style of Game I'm running. For the space era, I was going to go back to the Golden Heroes rules, which I used for the very first Game session thirty-odd years ago. The rules are simple, beautifully suit the super-hero genre (whether on Earth or in space), and we had spent so long playing them the first time round that it shouldn't take any effort to re-learn them.

(2) I also have to do a certain amount of research for each era (some more than others, depending on how "real" I want the Game to be), and this is a pretty big time sink (not to mention all the books I end up buying). By using a space-based science fiction setting, I don't need research. I can just make it all up.

(3) Finally, I have to actually create the setting: build the world, create characters to be friends and antagonists for the players, and seed enough plots to keep the Game running for six months. This should also have been easy this time around, as a lot of the work had already been done when Strikeforce encountered alien invaders (see for example the Crossfire storyline). So I was just going to re-use a lot of that.

So, not much work to do, right? I just need to throw together some simple plotlines.

And maybe create some planets.

Ok, lots of planets.

And new villains.

And make the political situation more nuanced.

Spreadsheet of travel time between planets, with a complicated algorithm for how warp speed works.

Don't forget the deck plans for the players' starship.

I've just read a scientific report on Betelgeuse going supernova, and I'm sure I can work that into a plot.

Collect character backgrounds from the players, and make notes on how to use or abuse those backgrounds for future story threads.

Have mental breakdown while reading some of the ridiculous ideas the players have come up with.

Spend several hours reading a submission from one player who is writing an entire novel to explain his character's background.

Ok, everything is done.

No, I just thought of a new set of villains. I'll need extra plot threads to tie them into.

Hold on, I hate these deck plans. Can we use a Broadsword class cruiser instead? Only change this, and this, and this. Invent a completely new scale for the deck plans because it's the wrong size. And add the teleport booth here. Wait, just leave it with me, I'll draw the new layout on graph paper. It will be fine, I've got five days and everything else is done.



[Originally posted 21 May 2017]

Have you read Strikeforce chapter 17? No? Ok, go on. I'll wait.


One day many years ago, probably in the pub after a Game session, and possibly under the influence of alcohol, I said to the players:

"Haven is where everything touches but never meets, while the Parallax is where everything meets but never touches."

If I'm honest, I don't think I had any idea what that meant. It just sounded cool. My ideas of multi-universal cosmology were still a work in progress. But from that statement, or rather, from trying to subsequently justify that statement and make it true, came the so-called "Beermat" model of the multiverse, the five demons, and basically everything that underpinned the big concepts of my Game universe and drove stories for the next 25 years (and is still doing it).

I was just reminded of this today when reading some old notes and came across this (reasonably accurate) transcript of a conversation between the players arguing in-character during the course of a Game: 

"Supposing you're right and the Demon itself wasn't destroyed during the Event. What you seem to be implying is that it's fleeing from Earth at the speed of light consuming whatever 'magic' it encounters, growing stronger as it expands. If this is the case it will have the power it needs to achieve criticality and complete its takeover of the universe long before it engulfs the entire galaxy. Considering the situation, we don't see any other choice but to utilise the Doomsday Device against the Event field!"

"You are missing the point! The Demon is the outside of the Event! The Event itself is non-Demon. It is a purging/pushing/repelling field, not an all powerful Demon containment field! Look, the Event MUST survive to progress through the whole universe before the end of Time so that the entirety of the Demon energy is destroyed before the Universe restarts!"

"You possess absolutely no evidence to support that hypothesis! As has been proven by subsequent events the Event field is self contained and has no link to Earth. Besides which, it's not an anti-Demon field! It's an improbability manipulation spell!"

(And there was a lot more of it, it goes on for pages) 

Bear in mind that this isn't me writing the argument, it's two players (speaking in character, based on the characters' knowledge and experiences) with differing interpretation of how the universe -- my universe -- works, each trying to convince the other they are right, without reference to me. I'm just watching them.

This is why I love the Game. It's the player input. They really care about it to the extent that they don't just listen to my explanations of stuff, they think about them in character and have their characters come up with new theories to explain the facts they've been given. 

 And then they argue with each other about them. 

 It's awesome.

 I have the best players.


 [Originally posted 9 April 2017]

Don wasn't supposed to be an important character. When I introduced the DICE organization to the Game, the main and only important character was supposed to be Major Eastwood, its leader (a thinly disguised Nick Fury, as I'm sure everybody figured out). But I needed other agents, so Don started as a generic background extra, and then got a name probably around the time Scorpio saved his life [chapter  15 of the Strikeforce story]. 

He could still have faded into the background, but now he had a reason to be remembered. Scorpio had saved his life, so there was a bond there, and when I needed more DICE agents to appear in a plot it just made sense to say it was Don. So now he needed a personality, and a background, and a skill set beyond being "generic secret agent #1".

Huey, Dewey and Luey were quickly added to DICE because Don needed a team and, well, I love names that are puns and/or have meta-textual meaning. Ed ("the duck") Mallard was also an inevitable addition by this point.

Don was never a major character, because the Game had to be exclusively about Strikeforce, and he didn't really appear very often, but his appearances were remembered. 

When I ended Strikeforce and moved the story "twenty years later", the main characters would be young super-humans on the run. I needed an older mentor for them, someone who could lead them into the stories I wanted to tell. From the moment I conceived the idea, there could only be one choice: Don.

When we started that next phase of the Game, I introduced Don and the players accepted it with a smile, because they knew it was exactly right. As players they knew and trusted Don, and so it made it easy for them to believe that their characters would trust and follow him. It wasn't something forced on them to make the story work, it was something that made sense within the world and felt right.

In the Strikeforce story, I introduced Don by name earlier than I did in the Game, and I gave him and his squad larger supporting roles. Whenever I've needed a generic DICE agent, I've made it Don or one of his team. Because it probably was, except I hadn't given them names at that point. And because I knew Scorpio had to be with Don at a certain point in order to save his life and for them to become friends, so why not begin the association a little sooner? I think it works.

Don went from un-named to cardboard character to trusted friend to key participant to one of my favourite characters over years of play, and I like to think it all grew organically. I hope it looks that way from the outside. But you've still got lots of his story to read ... 

Annotations: Strikeforce Chapter 1

[Originally posted 16 March 2017]

Some general insights into how my mind works when I plot a Game and when I turn that game into the purple prose of the Strikeforce story. You might want to read the first chapter of Strikeforce again, so you know what this is all talking about...

Time Is 

The titles of the first three chapters are quotes from the story of Friar Bacon and the head of brass (an Elizabethan-era play by Robert Greene, though I'm pretty sure I must have read a modern retelling (possibly James Baldwin's, I'm not sure, it was a long time ago). The story itself pre-dates Greene's version. The head of brass says three things to Bacon's witless apprentice:

"Time is,"

"Time was,"

"Time is past"

The moral of the story is about not having the wit to see something before it's too late. I'm not saying the moral applies to Strikeforce, I just like the story and the quote, and it fitted these chapters.

Model GM-1

This name is a bit of conceit: GM, or "Games Master" is what I'm called when I run the Game. So the narrator here is me. In the Game, I play the Computer as a "non-player character". It gives me a useful in-game voice to answer player's questions.

The decision to make the Computer both a character and an omniscient narrator seemed like a good one when I started writing out the story, but became hard to sustain in the writing, so as times goes on the narrator tends to say less and less.


When I started the Game, I planned to run short "solo" adventures for each player individually, to get them used to their characters and the rules. Electron's was the only one I did in the end, and that one's reproduced here pretty much verbatim. The others are made up for the sake of the story, but I think are reasonably close to what we would have done.

The five players played Nightflyer, Scorpio, Avatar, Electron, and Black Swan. Everybody else in the story is "me".


 I have nothing to say about Nightflyer that isn't already shown in the story. He was the simplest character in terms of what he could do and also of knowing what he wanted to be right from the start. While I'm not supposed to have favourites, Nightflyer is the character I would have wanted to play if I was a player rather than the GM.


 Probably the most problematic character. Scorpio's player decided almost from the start that he hadn't actually created the character he wanted to play, and almost immediately began changing it. He had a set of powers he very soon stopped using, and I have ignored some of these completely to make the story make more sense. He also started a deliberate change in the character's personality and motivations, which I have tried to reflect in the narrative.


The idea that Avatar's spells were spoken in Atlantean was a much later addition to the character. Originally he just did "magic words". At the start, I hadn't fully worked out how and why magic worked in my universe, and I certainly had no thoughts about Atlantis and how it might be important. I'll get more into that as the story progresses, but I'm going to be assuming I had all these ideas right at the start in order to make the narrative more consistent. Also it makes it look more like I knew what I was doing.


Electron's player wanted the character to be light-hearted, always ready with a pun. The problem is, the player wasn't very good at on-the-spot puns! So that aspect of the character sort of vanished. I've tried to keep it in the story, but it isn't always easy.

Black Swan

I almost re-named this character to be just "Swan" for purposes of the narrative when somebody (years later) pointed out to me that it's a bit uncomfortable to have the team's sole black member have a name that includes the word "Black". But it's a comics tradition dating back at least to the 60s, when writers were a lot less politically correct: Black Panther, Black Racer, Black Goliath ... all I'll say is that Black Swan's player was following a comics tradition, and leave it at that.

Black Swan's player missed the first Game session, which is why the character is absent from the fight with the villains. This sometimes happens in a game. If you're lucky, you can work the plot around the missing character (as here: because we were just staring out it was easy to just exclude her). If we stopped the last session at a point where the character has to be present, I can play the character, keeping it in the background as much as possible and hopefully being true to what the player would have wanted to do, but I really don't like doing that. Worst case scenario, we abandoned that week's Game and played Star Fleet Battles (or something) instead.


The four villains weren't particularly well fleshed out, as they were really only there to introduce the players to the combat rules and I never expected to use them again (as I knew I would move the action to the 20th century). The most notable thing about them was the name "Killervolt", which I really liked. I have a thing about names that are puns.

Chief Kadnez

This is a deliberate homage to Chief Zendak, the head of the Science Police in the Legion of Super-Heroes (DC Comics).

Carl Zod

Confession time: Zod, probably the most hated name in the whole Game, was a slip of the tongue. I wanted to call him "Professor Z" as a joke version of the X-men's "Professor X". But on the day of the Game, when I introduced him, for some unfathomable reason I said "Zod" instead of "Zed". I let it stick, and the rest is history. It had nothing to so with Superman's Zod, as some people have assumed.


If you think about it, the whole plot of vanishing time is ridiculous. Going back in time to stop ... something nebulous that's erasing the timeline. I actually had a whole physics of time travel worked out, explaining how alternate and vanishing timelines worked, and why you have a week of "your time" before you need to go back 400 years to stop it. But even so, I still can't understand why nobody (no player) ever asked "What if it's our intervention which causes it?" Luckily, suspension of disbelief won, otherwise there may never have been a Game.