James Wallis levels with you

Alas Vegas tarot cards—a first look

Here are the first four images that John Coulthart has created for the Alas Vegas tarot.

For some reason Kickstarter isn’t letting me insert images directly into my update posts, so I’m posting these here mostly so I can embed a link to them.

They’re all still works in progress. In particular we’re still discussing borders and typography. But this gives you a good idea of how the end results will look. I am a very pleased and excited man.

The Magician:


The High Priestess: 


The Empress:


The Wheel of Fortune:10

If you’re interested in getting the latest updates about Alas Vegas but you didn’t subscribe to the Kickstarter, there’s a mailing list you can subscribe to by sending an email to

Good things in small packages

At Tabletop Day last weekend I picked up a copy of Love Letter by Seiji Kanai, from AEG. If you don’t know it, it’s a lovely little game: just sixteen cards. It’s padded with some tokens and some reference cards, and it comes in an embroidered velvet bag, but it’s basically sixteen cards.

Needless to say, I love it. It’s like a fine watch mechanism: intricate, mysterious and beautiful. A jewelled movement of a game.

And it plays into my fondness for miniaturisation in game design. I like small games. I design small games. Smallness doesn’t have to mean simplicity. Baron Munchausen is a half-page of rules with a great deal of embroidery. There was that Cadbury Pocket Game thing a while ago, for which I took one of the heaviest games of recent years and condensed it into six counters and a stick of chalk. And of course I’ve been putting games on the back of my business cards since the late 2000s; every time I do a new business card I design a new game for it.

So it’s nice that my former office-mates Hide & Seek have picked up the whole idea of tiny games and have run with it. They did a whole campaign of excellent tiny location-based games around London last summer, and now they’re building on that with a Kickstarter to create an iPhone app filled with amazing tiny games and a very cool system for deciding which one you should play next.

And they’ve tapped a number of games figures and designers to create additional material and new games for them. I am happy to report that these worthies will include Eric Zimmerman, Jane McGonigal, Doug Wilson, Bernie DeKoven and me.

The Kickstarter has a week to run as I write this, and deserves your support. Plus if you pledge £40 you can get a beta-release copy of Hide & Seek’s epic Drunk Dungeon game. A bargain… though at 500 cards it hardly counts as tiny. Shame.

International Tabletop Day. Also headphones

This Saturday (30th March) is International Tabletop Day, which proves that Americans still don’t understand how the rest of the world treats the Easter weekend, and haven’t learned the lesson of Peter Adkison’s ill-fated Gen Con UK, held over the Easter weekend in 2003.

Putting that aside, it’s a worthy idea and a great way of publicising the new generation of games and gaming to a wider audience.

I’ll be starting the day at Leisure Games in Finchley, north London, where I’ll be joined by Quintin Smith, noted games journalist and host of the Shut Up and Sit Down podcast, and my fellow Black Library author Richard Williams. After a couple of hours of that I will be hot-footing it westwards, to spend the rest of the day chez Eclectic Games in Reading, where there will be playing of games and chatting of chats. It will be good. Come up and accost me and ask me to play something or explain something—the question of 2013 appears to be why the last two books of the Marks of Chaos series never came out, if you’re looking for inspiration. I’m the tall one wearing the headphones.

Headphones! For anyone who’s been following my quest for the ideal sub-£100 headphone—which I’m pretty sure is none of you—you’ll remember the saga began when someone nicked the pair of Plantronics gamer phones from my desk at work. They weren’t great but the boom mike made them useful for Skype calls and they’d survived having my old study ceiling fall on them, so there was a certain sentimental attachment there. From there I went to a pair of Audio Technica ATH-ES55s (really lovely full sound, comfy and aesthetically pleasing, broke two pairs in eighteen months), and from there to a pair of Phillips Downtowns (amazingly comfortable, good sound but quite bass-light, only available in white, purple or brown, look like they should be really long-lasting but broke in four months), and thence to Sennheiser HD202s which should have been a triumphant homecoming because I’ve liked Sennheisers since the late 80s when I took a pair round the world but they were just… they were what I expected a pair of no-brand £25 headphones to sound like, a bit muted, a bit dull, not special at any particular frequency range and not terribly comfortable, and the heavy 2m cord they come with is simply awkward, particularly on the move. Really, when the cable wrap is larger than the music player, something is wrong with your design.

So I ended up borrowing back the Sennheiser PX100-iis that I’d passed on to my wife when I bought the Audio Technicas, and that was a little revelation. A revision of a classic design, it’s a really small, light headset that folds up nicely to fit in a pocket but delivers an awful lot of sound for that. And I thought this was probably it, and I’d stick with them, even if they didn’t do a great job of keeping my ears warm in the recent inclemency. And then someone on a mailing list mentioned Koss PortaPros.

The PortaPro has been around since the eighties, and if you had to choose one word to sum them up it would have to be ‘ugly’. Ugly, ugly, ugly, even though I’m a fan of what we shall call alternative aesthetics. Plus really, how well can a pair of £25 headphones with a design unchanged since 1984 really stand up to modern music through modern technology?

Oh my lord.

I am aware that at the moment I look like a bit-player from an early cyberpunk movie, but I don’t care. Subtle when it counts but full of big sound when it matters, it’s like these things have a mind of their own—a mind that really loves music. They have a reputation for a lot of bass but I like that, and it’s not a big flat bass either, there’s a deftness in the response here that’s simply a joy to listen to. Twenty-five quid. Extraordinary. I am a man converted.

Just had to tell someone. I trust you understand.

Anyway, Tabletop Day. If you’re going to be in London or Reading then come along; if you’re going to be somewhere else then head to your local games store, or grab a box of something and a couple of mates and head to your local coffee shop or pub. Evangelise a little, maybe meet some new people. You’ll be glad you did.

While I’m writing, how’s this blog theme working out for you? I’m in two minds about it, to be honest. Let me know.



A week ago I put up a post talking about the just-started Kickstarter campaign for Alas Vegas, my new RPG. I’ve just written a sober description of that week for the Spaaace front-page blog, inviting analysis. But this is my personal blog, so here are some personal opinions.

1. Kickstarter is as addictive as meth, and possibly as bad for your teeth. Certainly for your fingernails.

2. Alas Vegas hit its funding goal in seven and three-quarter hours. Before the campaign started I was honestly wondering if £3000 was ambitious for a first Kickstarter. We hit that target in a third of a day. Then we blew through the first two stretch goals in the rest of that day, and knocked down the third—Yet Already, a fantastic fractured-time setting for the game’s Fugue mechanics, designed by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, in a couple of days more.

If you’re one of the people who has pledged money to Alas Vegas, thank you. Thank you more than I can say. If not, then…

3. Things have slowed down a bit now, which is a shame as we’re just getting to the really interesting stretch goals—Allen Varney, Robin D. Laws and others have offered material, but progress has got bogged down in some additional-artwork funding. Which brings me to:

4. Keep your campaign focused, don’t let it pull in two directions. Alas Vegas has a lot of people asking for an official Tarot deck. Well, that would be great, but it’s equally clear that there are a lot of people who don’t care a sou for Tarot decks one way or another, and who won’t back the Kickstarter while we’re asking for money for Tarot art. I have got a solution for the Tarot fans, conditional on sign-off from a couple of people, but as soon as we’ve cleared this stretch goal (it’s to commission the rest of the Major Arcana from the amazing John Coulthart) then the Alas Vegas campaign will be back to cool new stuff for the game.

5. Seriously, Allen Varney’s pitch for his new Fugue mechanics setting made me spit assorted foodstuffs across my laptop. It’s genius. And before that we have John Tynes promising to write a selection of Vegas-style cocktail recipes for Alas Vegas, suitable for drinking while playing the game.

6. Did I mention that this is the most fun I’ve had in the games industry for a long time? Not counting Warpcon, of course.

7. Which leads me to a future post, which I will write when I have time, about gamification. It’s been fermenting for a long time, and I think you’ll enjoy it. But it won’t happen until you have pledged more of your money. Go on! You could get the game dedicated to you.

Ain’t That A Kick In The Head

I learned a long time ago that the only sure way to get an idea out of my head is to write it down and publish it. Therefore after two years of Alas Vegas not going away—and a previous fifteen years when it was an unwritten novel called Vague As Hell not going away either—it has finally come time to do something with the project.

Shortly before this post went live, the Alas Vegas RPG page appeared on Kickstarter. We’re asking for £3000 to release a four-session RPG set in a place that looks a lot like Vegas but isn’t. It’s a lot more violent for a start. Also, corpses disappear. And there’s no way to leave.

Alas Vegas is my first new RPG design for fifteen years (since The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, in fact) and I think it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done. In a phrase, it’s Ocean’s Eleven directed by David Lynch.  The mechanics are simple and hit that sweet spot of advancing the narrative as they go. The story is very cool, and pacing it over four sessions lets the players experience proper cliffhangers and an actual ending that ties up all the loose plot threads.

There’s a lot more about the game on its Kickstarter page, and I’ve written about it here before. I’m excited about the fact that it’s moving towards print, but I’m also excited about exploring the process of crowdfunding. A while back, pre the existence of this blog, I discussed ways to reinstate the eighteenth-century model of subscription-funding the publication of a book, the model that Johnson’s Dictionary used. It’s here now, and it’s transforming the industry. Getting my teeth into the guts of the process is going to be really interesting.

Of course I’ll be bitterly disappointed if you don’t pledge at least £100.

Alas and alack

Just wanted to share something I’ll be talking up at Dragonmeet this Saturday:

Artwork by Niki Hunter. ‘Godfather of indie game design’ quote from Robin D. Laws, who will also be at Dragonmeet.

(Should you be at Dragonmeet too, I’ll be running demonstration games of the new edition of Once Upon a Time in the lobby from noon until someone tells me to stop. Then at 16.30 I’ll be chairing a panel on ‘The British RPG Industry—Where It Came From, Where It’s Going’ with the help of Phil Masters, Simon Rogers, Dom McDowall-Thompson and Piers Newman. It should be a good one.)

Once Upon a Time – interview with the director

Last week I posted a link to the short film Once Upon a Time, based on my card-game Once Upon a Time—if you missed it it’s here:

It’s a labour of love and remarkably accomplished for a first film from a writer/director. So having badgered him to put the film online, I badgered him into talking about how the film came to be and some of the creative challenges in converting a card-game into a half-hour drama.

Who are you and what are you doing on my blog?

I’m Andrew Shellshear! The “!” is silent. I’m an amateur film-maker, puzzle designer, webcomic writer, juggler, classical guitarist, computer programmer, and game designer. I lack focus, is what I’m saying.

I am here thanks to kind words Mr Wallis had for a short film I made twelve years ago. It was my first short film, and I decided to make it about a game of Once Upon a Time.

Why did you choose Once Upon a Time as the subject for a film?

Film-making is expensive now, but was cripplingly expensive before the late 1990s. Video cameras were several thousand dollars and produced less than broadcast quality, but that was nothing compared with the cost of the editing equipment. By 1999 you could finally do editing on home computers (with specialised video capture boards) for only a couple of thousand dollars. So, having blown all my money on equipment, I wanted to make a first film that wouldn’t cost much, which meant a small cast, few locations, and indoors (outdoor locations are a pain in the neck). People sitting around talking. I had recently been playing OUaT and it struck me that a film about a bunch of people sitting around playing it would be cheap, and potentially dramatic: we can have parallel stories of the fairy tale and the tellers, and the levels could interact in interesting ways.

Did you use the game itself to help the creative process?

Yes – I knew the rough beats of the story, but used OUaT cards to inspire most of the fairy tale elements – more like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, though. I’ve used OUaT cards for that a few times, particularly when participating in Nanowrimo.

Watching people play a card-game can be a bit static. How did you get around that?

Actually, because this was my first film, I was happy to confine it to the traditional “bunch of people talking” scene. It was good practice for the kind of film-making you have to do a lot. I storyboarded the whole film and put in a couple of dolly shots (using a home-made tripod dolly which proved nightmarishly difficult to move around), and tried to make sure I had good coverage (that is, shooting the same scene from several different angles including a master wide shot) to allow variety in editing. I didn’t want to get too adventurous because I knew we only had two weekends to film 30 minutes worth of footage. The main trick to keeping it interesting was to make sure the story was interesting enough, and I tried to make it as tense as I could. Viewed twelve years later, that’s an aspect that does still work, I think.

The story within the film—is that really the kind of story you guys were telling with the game?

Noooooo. I’ve never played a game remotely like that. The script really needed to be punchy to get around the aforementioned static card game problem.

How did the shoot go?

It was a frantic rush. I prepared for it more than I’ve done for any other shoot, but I made a lot of mistakes as well – recording audio separately on minidisk proved a massive pain in editing, and I made a huge mistake in deciding to capture using the Sony TRV900’s “Progressive Scan” mode – it had a frame-rate of 12.5 frames per second (slow and jerky) and the result looked grainy and washed out. On the positive side I had a great crew, and we got through everything in the two weekends allocated.

How was the film received?

I didn’t attempt much of a release – just showed it to my friends and sent it to the creators of the game. Having said that, I *did* rent out a movie theatre and limo, made up posters and t-shirts. The premiere was great! Everyone laughed at the right moments.

The film version of Once Upon a Time modifies the game’s rules. Is that for dramatic convenience, or are there actual house rules in there?

I incorporated a house rule I always use: you only get the ending cards after the first card is played. I found it stopped people planning ahead too much. Otherwise yeah, the changes were because it takes too long to explain about interrupt cards. The game would never work as played in the film.

What other films have you made? What are you working on at the moment? Do you still play Once Upon a Time?

I really burned out on OUaT after the film, but I still use it for the Oblique Strategies on story ideas. This discussion has gotten me thinking about it again, though! I’ll introduce it to my lunchtime game group (the Comic Irregulars).

I’ve made a dozen or so short films, but none that have reached a professional standard. The best two (besides OUaT) are a music video for my friend Evan’s band (he provided the closing credits tune on OUaT), and a fifteen-second segment of the final cut of the Star Wars Uncut film (Scene 302, 1:17:42).

It’s very hard work, and I’m just not focused enough on film-making to push it beyond the occasional amateur effort. I have a full-length movie script about a botched kidnapping, which I’m very proud of – but I just can’t see how I’ll ever get the time to get it made! Nowadays I just make Youtube videos featuring my daughter.

Many thanks to Andrew for talking to me, and for making the film in the first place. Having someone adapt one of your works for a different medium is a wild compliment, and when the end result is as good as the—you’ve not watched it yet, have you? Go and watch it. Really.

And a quick reminder that the third edition of Once Upon a Time—the Games 100 card-game not the film—is newly released and available from all good games stores.

Once Upon a Time – the movie

How do you make a film based on a card-game? Not even Hasbro has tried it yet, but in the late 1990s I received a mysterious videotape in the post from Australia. A young film-maker called Andrew Shellshear had sent me a copy of his first half-hour movie. It was titled ‘Once Upon a Time’ and it was based on the card-game that I’d created with Andrew Rilstone and Richard Lambert.

To celebrate the release of the third edition of Once Upon a Time, which should be arriving in shops as you read this, I’ve finally persuaded Andrew to put the whole film up on YouTube for your delectation. Here it is.

Be warned that the language is not safe for work and specially not safe for children. But it’s a fun way to spend half an hour, and remarkably faithful to the original game. In a future post I’ll be talking to Andrew about how he created the multi-layered narrative and why he chose to write a script based on a card-game in the first place. For now, settle down and enjoy the movie.

(If you want to see more of the new edition of Once Upon a Time, Andrew Rilstone has published a series of unboxing pictures at his blog. It is very nice. If you want to see how it plays, I’ll be demonstrating it at Dragonmeet on 1st December.)



Sudden Sway: a Walk in the Park

Cities change all the time. They are constantly altering, growing, modernising and putting in speed bumps. They’ve been at it since before we were born, and they will be digging up the same bit of road every few years long after we’re dead or moved to the seaside. “It’ll be lovely here,” goes the standard London joke (and Sydney and Paris and New York and everywhere else), “as soon as they finish it.”

But not parks. Parks, surely, change only with the seasons. Why would you update a park—particularly one of the Royal Parks like Regents Park? The great swathe of green, bracketed by London Zoo and the Regent’s Canal to the north and the Marylebone Road and the Circle Line to the south: surely it doesn’t suffer the indignities of a new skateboard park or refreshments kiosk? Surely it is, as Vivian Stanshall described Rawlinson End, “English as tuppence, changing yet changeless as canal water, Miss Havishambling opsimath and eremite”?

You’d think so.

Imagine therefore the confusion of Kevan Davis and myself as we, standing by the appointed gateway into the park, simultaneously switched on our MP3 players for the Klub Londinium ‘Mystic’ walk and were greeted with the words ‘Take the first turn to your left, passing the small wooden hut’.

There was no wooden hut.

‘As you pass the first bench to your left, look beyond to the cream mansions and the vista southwards.’

There were no benches.

We gave up and went to the pub.

No! We persevered. The park furniture may have disappeared since the Klub Londinium walks were recorded and first organised in 1990, but the path is in the same place, and it was there to be followed.

This was the Mystic walk, one of four created by the experimental pop group Sudden Sway as part of a psychogeographical system for putting people into the heads or at least the mindsets of people mostly unlike themselves. I did the Outsider walk in 1990 and blogged about it recently here. Our journey was an attempt to see how the walks had survived 22 years, and whether it stood up to other, more technologically advanced or better funded experiences along the same lines.

Audio-based walks have been around a while, but they seem to be going through a resurgence. This morning an email from Meetup alerted me to a new group meeting in my local park for walk-and-tell experiences, and Improv Everywhere has just announced Audiogram, an ‘interactive audio adventure’ in collaboration with the Guggenheim in New York, following on from its annual MP3 Experiments. James Bridle reminded me about the Janet Cardiff walk for the Whitechapel Gallery, ‘The Missing Voice (Case Study B)’ (2001), which crosses some of the same terrain as Sudden Sway’s ‘Outsider’ walk, geographically if not artistically.

The Klub Londinium walks aren’t just geographical, they’re explicitly psychogeographical: they show the walker a part of London as it would be experienced by someone with a different worldview. It’s an interesting approach, interestingly executed. In 1990 it was not like anything else. Today, with transmedia a part of every digital agency’s basic toolkit, how would it have aged?

‘Mystic’ was not as I remembered ‘Outsider’. The recording was mono, not stereo (I had been sure that the narrator was in one ear, the voice of the persona in the other). The background music is not bits and fits but a continuous 45-minute piece, and very good indeed. The thing that struck me was how meticulous the timing is: not just the voice track but how well it’s synced to the music, and the music to the walking pace. A great deal of work went into this.

The narrator is more obtrusive, less ambiguous than I remember. It’s not a dry voice giving the general background for the persona to filter and interpret. They collaborate on creating the tone and mood. Given that ‘Mystic’ is a 22-year-old tongue-in-cheek take on new-age mysticism, it’s a mood that hasn’t aged terribly well.

There are three places in the walk where there are references to actors or stooges along the way (I only remember two on the Outsider walk). One is a simple call to observe someone doing something. The second is an interaction, and it’s not clear from the recording exactly what that interaction would have been. The third is—sadly—a repeat of a splendid piece of theatre that had been part of the Outsider walk. I say ‘had been’, though actually the Mystic walk was originally executed before the Outsider one. I know this because I remember people talking about it in the pub after I did Outsider, which brought me the only anecdote I know about the whole Klub Londinium experience.

A bit of context: the Mystic walk takes place almost entirely inside Regents Park. Mostly it’s along wide and well-trodden paths, but there are a couple of bits where the route is more secluded. Along the way the voices on the recording have worked hard to put you into a different state of consciousness—not a trance exactly but a different headspace, one where everything you encounter has a symbolic purpose and position. It’s definitely entertaining, but it’s definitely not a normal state of mind.

So back in 1990 participants were experiencing ‘Mystic’ as intended, walking ten minutes apart, each in their own little bubble of headphoned space, and expecting to meet agents along the way. One of the walkers is a young lady. And in one of the more isolated spots in the park, a flasher leaps out of the bushes and exposes himself to her.

She, of course, has no idea whether this is meant to be part of the experience, and freaks out quite badly.

That’s the anecdote.

The moral of the anecdote, for those of us who plan large-scale game-events, is that there’s always some bastard, whether a player or a member of the public, who will do something you never anticipated. Usually it’s obscene. Even in pre-internet 1990, a walk in the park could have a time-to-cock measurable in minutes.

‘Mystic’ is a journey in space, but also a journey in time. The park had changed, as I said: objects like huts and benches had gone, but less obviously some of the paths had changed their position. We got lost at one point, trying to work out which direction around a pond we were meant to take, and had to stop the audio and re-sync our players. The fact it was late summer meant that the trees were in full leaf and some of the views the Narrator told us to look at were blocked.

And at one point the walker is told to look at some graffiti on a wall, to read the words ‘Infidel’, ‘Hypocrite’ and ‘Sinner’. These words are long gone, but we found them over-written—probably not by a Sudden Sway collaborator but who can tell—with the motto ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’. Faced with such synchronicity, should the modern walker believe the words in their head, or take this new information and assimilate it as a new layer of the experience? We did both. Also it made us laugh.

All in all, it was a very pleasant way to spend a late-summer evening. The gist of the experience survives, transformed by the passage of time, but also changed by the user’s own understanding of the spaces they’re passing through. The walk concludes on Primrose Hill—I don’t think anyone is going to call me out for spoilering a transmedia experience almost a quarter-century old—in an atmosphere of uplifted joy. However my personal memories of Primrose Hill involve my ex-wife, and there’s no way that couldn’t add its own colour to the climax of ‘Mystic’. It’s all grist for the psychogeographic mill.

Do try the Klub Londinium walks, if you get the chance. There are MP3s of most of them, if you know who to ask, and I suspect that walking ‘Hedonist’ (through Leicester Square and Soho) and ‘Materialist’ (the Square Mile) would be fascinating for the student of London’s swift-changing urban landscapes. As experiences they’re still thoroughly engrossing and entertaining, whether you take them at face value or accept the changed city as part of the experience.

In the last post I talked about the walks being an early form of transmedia. Thinking about it more, I think they were actually part of a proto-Alternate Reality Game, based around an exploration of the extraordinary universe created by Sudden Sway over their ten-year career, from neuro-activity modules and the single ‘To You With ReGard’—a dot-com style mid-word capitalisation there, but this was released in 1981—to the finale of their last album Ko-Opera, which to my shame I have never actually heard.

The albums, their related materials, the ICA shows, the sporadic interviews and appearances all link together in strange and lovely ways. For example: one of the tracks the band recorded for their second Peel Session in 1984 is called ‘A Walk In The Park’, and documents a man taking a futuristic dreamlike and decidedly ARG-like guided walk—a ‘hypnostroll’—through a park. Six years later appears Klub Londinium and the ‘Mystic’ walk, and suddenly you are that walker, moving through and into the future.

Extraordinarily imaginative, bizarrely prescient and musically quite wonderful. And a product, so we’re led to believe, of Inprac, a research division of Conseptat, the Idea Agency.

The material’s still out there, for those prepared to dive through digital record bins and the dustier bits of Myspace. Here’s a couple of links to get you started.

The band’s old Myspace page, including recordings and photographs of the legendary Spacemate boxed set

An entirely different Sudden Sway Myspace page, with recordings of the second Peel Session (never formally released) including A Walk In The Park



Klub Londinium: not the Mystic Walk

On Friday last week Kevan Davis and I met in Regents Park and did—simultaneously and not as it’s supposed to be done—the Klub Londinium ‘Mystic’ walk. It was a lovely evening, the temperature and mood were just right, and the experience was transfigurative. I’m still in the process of mustering my thoughts and forcing them into digital form. Shortly.

In the meantime my old friend and comrade-in-arms Mr Cardhouse (we have met once, six years ago) has posted his experience of the Jejeune Institute ARG. It is considerable. Also excellent, because Cardhouse is very high on my list of ‘If you didn’t write like you, who would you like to write like?’ people on the internet, and though not a games guy in the usual sense he gets it. (He was one of the guys behind X/Worship the X, which was part of the early-90s flowering of simply amazing US music/culture zines that also produced Greed (Kurt Sayenga, where are you now?) and Might (ed. one Dave Eggars) and slightly later Raygun. You should know X if only for Evan Dorkin’s amazing two-page comic-strip retelling of Catcher in the Rye illustrated entirely with drawings of Fisher-Price Little People. Yes you should.)

(Fuck me, twenty years ago. Much like Klub Londinium. Was there something in the water?)

Anyway, Cardhouse has caught the lightning-in-a-bottle sensation of being in an ARG experience: the information overload, data coming to you in the wrong order, sometimes weeks or months late, the other people, and the amazing confusion and weirdness and joy of it all. I commend it to you.

Back to it.