Freewrite: In-Depth Review (with Comments on the Traveler)


I wrote this review because I’ve been using the Freewrite for a few weeks now, and although other reviews exist, they all seem to be written by people who’ve only spent a few days with the device. As far as I can tell, no in-depth reviews exist. So here’s me writing one.

I’m going into this review already knowing that a fair few people have a lot of not-nice things to say about the Freewrite. As with all things, they’re likely just the vocal minority — the vast majority of people, I assume, are quietly content with their device and don’t have anything much to complain about.

I have things to complain about, but they’re reasonably minor. I’ll get to them. The truth is, I think a lot of the people complaining about the Freewrite do so because they bought it not realizing it is designed to meet a very specific need, a design which meets my requirements almost perfectly. I will list those things now and why I like them, and also comment on why other people did not.

I think the main feature of the Freewrite is its e-ink display. It is the star of the show here. I’ve seen a fair few people complain that they don’t like it and would prefer something like a snappier LCD display, but again, those people just aren’t really getting the point. There are two main reasons to want an e-ink display on your device:

  1. Clarity. The clarity of the e-ink display makes it very easy on the eyes. At least in my case, staring at normal LCD or LED screens for even a short period gives me eye strain. I can’t read e-books or PDFs on my laptop, and will endeavor to move as many documents as possible to my Kindle before attempting to read them. Further, e-ink in readable in direct sunlight, while a laptop is not, making writing on the Freewrite a more enjoyable experience for me because I don’t have to hide away in the dark to experience it. The screen is, for me, the number one reason why I bought the Freewrite, and it is my opinion that anyone who does not want an e-ink display on their Freewrite had very poor judgment when they decided to buy it.

    Example of ghosting on the Freewrite.

    2. Battery life. An e-ink display does not require active power to maintain an image. Once an image is set, the power can be turned off and the image will remain on the screen. This gives e-ink devices tremendous battery life, in the region of weeks. Thinking now, I can’t remember the last time I charged my Kindle, and I use it every day. The Freewrite, of course, is a little more power hungry than the Kindle, but even so, even with heavy use, I get several days out of it, and light use of half an hour a day is said to give you a battery life of 4 weeks (although, if you’re writing that little, do you really need it?).
    On the topic of clarity, though, I do have a complaint. E-ink displays are prone to ghosting. This is because, to allow faster frame rates, they often don’t refresh the whole screen between frames, only those pixels which are in use. For this reason, the Kindle has options to refresh the screen at various intervals: every page, every 3rd page, every 5th page etc. The Freewrite has no such option, and I have to admit that after only a few lines the ghosting is so severe that it renders the main selling point, a clear display, null and void. It would be ridiculously simple to program the screen to refresh the page after every line, and an amazing customer experience if it allowed the user to customize how often the line refreshes, but sadly this feature is completely missing. It won’t stop me using the Freewrite but it certainly makes the experience far less enjoyable, and it’s a feature which seems like a no-brainer, but it’s not there.

Another feature of e-ink that others have complained about is the low frame rate. Many have called it “infuriating” to type something and then wait a whole quarter second before their words appear on the screen. The only response I have to this is that this simply doesn’t bother me. Either I’m simply used to e-ink’s slow frame rate because of my heavy use of the Kindle, or I’m simply more patient than the ludites who don’t have a good thing to say about the Freewrite, or it just simply doesn’t bother me, and I’m not sure why it should. I don’t need an instant visual reminder of what word I just typed because I know what I just types — I just typed it. I’m not the fastest typist in the world, though, so perhaps the Freewrite is able to keep up with me, while more skilled typists start to feel like they’re playing a very cruel game of Snake. So, if you’re an average typist, this may not bother you either, but if you type at the speed of sound, you should probably think about whether this is right for you.IMG_1062

Another, weirder complaint that I’ve heard is that the Freewrite’s ability to sync to the cloud is “unnecessary.” I simply can’t understand such a complaint. Complaining about a feature which you don’t want to use seems very strange to me, but especially when that feature is something that is supposed to make your writing experience more seamless. As someone who was a heavy user of USB drives back in the day and now works solely on documents which are synced to the cloud, I find the cloud syncing feature invaluable. I must admit, when I first ordered my Freewrite I wasn’t even aware of this feature, but it was a very pleasant surprise. I was really just ordering it for the display. But the ability to write documents and then sync them straight to my laptop for editing is a feature which, now having it, I would not want to do without.

The Freewrite lacks arrow keys, and this is something many have complained about. This is a purposeful design choice and is a part of the Freewrite philosophy. For me, part of the selling point of the Freewrite was that it gives me the experience I get using my typewriter, but without the need to then type up whatever I wrote manually into the computer afterwards. Part of that experience is the inability to edit your work, and I love it. But of course we live in the digital age, and many people aren’t familiar with typewriters and don’t understand the concept. And I understand these people. Using the Freewrite, as with when I use my typewriter, allows me to just let go of minor spelling mistakes or changes I decide I want to make to a sentence I wrote a few lines back. The idea is to completely separate the drafting process from the editing process, and the makers of the Freewrite, Astrohaus, have strongly resisted calls to change this because it goes against their design philosophy. I applaud them for sticking to their guns, but fans of arrow keys can rejoice, for Astrohaus have decided to come to a compromise: although the original Freewrite will not have arrow keys (even though a very simple software update would allow them), their new Traveler (a collapsible “laptop” style version of the Freewrite) will, in the form of WASD. So if arrow keys are the thing that’s holding you back from the Freewrite, go head and pre-order the Traveler.


Hold down the New key to use the WASD keys as arrow keys

I think my only real complaint about the Freewrite is that it is over-engineered. This is the only thing about the Freewrite which I am willing to call what one reviewer called “hipster nonsense.” The only thing that kept me from buying a Freewrite back in 2014 was the ridiculous price tag. I understand what they were aiming for: they wanted to create the best writing experience ever, so they went for the highest quality parts possible, with high-travel Cherry MX keys, a solid aluminum shell and a rather overpriced (at $50) felt case. But the thing is, I couldn’t give a damn about all of those things. I never wanted the best writing experience ever, I just wanted something better than what I already had, combining the best features of my laptop and my typewriter (and my Kindle). For those that care about such things, the expensive keyboard is very nice to type on, but it and the aluminum case add a lot of bulk and weight. In all honesty, the newer Traveler, which they designed based on user feedback (or, one could say, criticism) of the original Freewrite, is probably more my thing, as unlike the original Freewrite is doesn’t carry over some of the cons of a typewriter for weird aesthetic reasons. It’s lighter, smaller, and has laptop-style scissor switch keys and foldable design, which, honestly, I prefer. (I have, in case you are wondering, already pre-ordered my Traveler, but I expect to be using it alongside my Freewrite rather than as a replacement for it.)IMG_1060

For a device which is supposed to reduce distractions, the learning curve on the Freewrite is kind of steep on account of the lack of any GUI. Nearly all actions on the Freewrite are performed with keyboard shortcuts, and I spent a lot of time in the first few weeks navigating the various pages of Astrohaus’s website trying to find out which of the dozen key combinations I need to press to do things, to the point that eventually I wrote them all down on a sticker and stuck them to by Freewrite, as you can see in the picture. It didn’t help that some of the keyboard shortcuts aren’t even in the manual and had to be told to me by the endlessly patient (and all kudos to him) customer support rep, who helped me through all my teething problems, but the point is that learning to simply use my Freewrite was a challenge all on its own, which, again, goes against its very design philosophy. It feels very much as if, in their attempts to avoid distracting the user with a GUI, they’ve actually painted themselves into a corner so that more distractions are in the end created by the need to learn an endless list of keyboard shortcuts.

Let me talk a little bit about Postbox, which is the Freewrite’s cloud syncing manager, and the folder system. The Freewrite has just three folders, which are all synced to Postbox. Again, this small number of folders is supposed to reduce distraction, and I can see it working, except that they’ve made some very curious design decisions when it comes to how the software syncs.

I learned, to my surprise and consternation, that the Freewrite only ever downloads the most recent document in any folder. In my innocence, I assumed that I could use the folder system to organize my work, in the same way that folders work on my laptop, but this apparently is not the case. I assigned folder A to include stories and projects I am working on, folder B to include notes on said stories, and folder C as a kind of “other” folder, in which I wrote to-do lists, shopping lists, applications, letters, this very review, ransom notes and other various things. This all worked perfectly fine until I had to restart my Freewrite.

You see, I mentioned that the Freewrite only downloads the latest document in any folder. I hadn’t actually lost any work — don’t worry about that — but I could no longer access it on my Freewrite. All of my work was all still available in Postbox and synced to my various cloud storage solutions, but only the very latest document in each folder was re-downloaded onto my Freewrite. I contacted Astrohaus, and was told that this was absolutely on purpose: when you log into a Freewrite, it downloads only the most recent document in each folder. Why they decided to make it function this way, only the gods know, but it significantly reduced my enjoyment of the Freewrite because it effectively means that despite having three “folders,” I can only really safely work on three files, with one file per folder. Because if for any reason I have to restart my Freewrite, all but the latest files will be gone from my Freewrite and only available on the cloud, i.e. on my computer, i.e. completely defeating the point of having a Freewrite, which was to reduce my time spent writing on LCD screens.

The thing is, none of these things, except the price, have put me off buying or using the Freewrite. I will continue to use it and enjoy my experience while doing so, and I don’t even think these things would even have put me off. There are many small cons to the Freewrite, and the strange thing is that almost all of these cons can be removed by a very simple software update, and it baffles me why no such update has materialized. This is, however, at least for me, a case where the pros outweigh the cons and the benefit I get from using the Freewrite is considerably greater than the annoyances I experience at the expense of a few weird design decisions. If I could implement some changes, I would do so in this order:

  1. Refresh the page after every line to prevent ghosting. Also, when scrolling with page up/down or changing files/folders, refresh the goddamn page.
  2. At the very least, sync the last three documents in each folder to the Freewrite, and if possible, all of them. This is especially important because the new Traveler is designed to be used in conjunction with the original Freewrite, and if this means that it is only possible to work on three documents at once because only one file per folder is syncing to each device, then the company is effectively hamstringing its customers.81ggmqkybil._sx466_

Let me talk a little bit about that felt case I mentioned earlier. It’s useless. Old portable laptops came with either a sturdy leather case or a plastic (sometimes metal) hard top which clips over the top of the typewriter. The idea here is to stop the keys from being pressed in transit. The Freewrite’s felt case does none of these things. The felt case is so soft that it is possible to press the keys through it. Of greatest importance, it’s very easy for the power key to be pressed and for the Freewrite to wake up, so that when I take the Freewrite out later to use, it is already turned on and the contents of my bag have made written a string of random letters in my document. Even worse, if the power button is held down for 5 seconds it will log you out, and at 12 seconds it will factory reset. This is the circumstance which led me to realize that the Freewrite wasn’t downloading more than one document per folder, and I had to manually type out the other documents I was working on in order to get them back into my Freewrite because there is no way to send a document back to the Freewrite once it had been removed.


Polaroid Roadie Series Professional Hard Case

The problem is so bad that I ended up having to enable password protection on my Freewrite, which again, defeats the purpose of the device because it adds an extra step between turning on the device and being able to write on it. Also, because the Freewrite doen’t refresh the screen, and because the password is displayed in plain text when you type it, my password remains on the screen as a ghost image for all to see. I’ve resorted to buying a Polaroid Roadie Series Professional Hard Case, whose measurements match the Freewrite so precisely that you’d think it was made for it, but it almost doubles the size of the Freewrite in my bag because it doesn’t follow the curve of the Freewrite.

Weirdly, this isn’t a complaint I’ve heard from anyone else about the felt case. Instead, what I’ve heard is that the lack of a carrying handle is the greatest annoyance, which is true. But for me, the greatest problem is that the soft felt case doesn’t protect the Freewrite from damage or errant keypresses or initiating the self destruct protocol, and the only thing is does protect from is dust, which instead clings to the Velcro-like felt. What I really want for the Freewrite is a hard top like my typewriter has. If I had a vacuum forming machine I would go ahead and make one for myself and throw out the overpriced rubbish that is the felt case.

That said, because the keyboard on the newer Traveler folds away nicely, the felt case they sell for it is appropriate, although also quite expensive.

So, the question is, should you buy the Freewrite, and if so, the original one or Traveler? My short answer is yes. Go buy a Freewrite. They’re great. The e-ink display and cloud syncing feature make the Freewrite the perfect combination of typewriter and laptop, in my opinion. Some of the design choices, though quirky, are things which you will appreciate if you’ve ever used a typewriter. The Freewrite appeals to a very specific type of writer, and if you’re not the target audience, don’t throw a tantrum when you realize the Freewrite isn’t a laptop.


But again, should you buy the Traveler or the original? Honestly, my suggestion would be to pre-order the Traveler rather than invest in an original Freewrite. The Traveler was designed based on customer feedback and so better meets the requirements of most writers. It is smaller, foldable and lighter than the Freewrite, and has a movable cursor and arrow keys. In fact, the only feature from the larger Freewrite that it is lacking is a frontlight, and I’m not quite sure why. I still love my Freewrite, but the Traveler is expected to be more portable and more usable, and I do expect both these improvements to increase the amount of time I spend writing, but at the same time reducing the amount of time I spend with my original Freewrite.

The Traveler is available to pre-order on Indiegogo or directly from the Freewrite website.

Note: This is not a paid promotion.

Michel Thomas vs Paul Noble Language Courses

Michel Thomas is probably the most famous name is language learning. His pioneering method concentrates on a naturalistic way of learning languages, rather than the rote learning that we experience in schools, where we find that, after years of classes, we can’t actually speak the language we supposedly learned. Towards the end of his life, Michel Thomas decided to begin recording his lessons to release as audio courses so that more than just an elite few could benefit from his secret. Michel Thomas is dead, but his method continues to be sold and produced, while recently a newcomer by the name of Paul Noble has appeared on the scene selling a technique remarkably similar to Thomas’s. Some would even say that Paul Noble has stolen his technique, but I personally have strong reservations about the idea that it’s possible to steal something as intrinsic as how the human mind learns.

Both courses are much more effective than other methods of learning a language, and after completing one, you should have a basic understanding of the grammatical structure of the language and be able to form simple sentences, although your vocabulary will not be very large, as the point of the courses is really to teach you grammar, rather than a wide vocabulary, as the former is much more important than the latter when starting out. But the question remains: which is better?

Both methods use the same basic exercise, in which you, the student, are taught a word, usually a verb, and asked to translate a sentence from English to the target language. As this method is repeated over and over again your vocabulary and mastery of the language increases. This similarity also means that both methods have much of the same flaws, but each has a unique advantage over the other. The advantage of the Paul Noble method is that is is much more focused and refined, but sadly it does not offer advanced courses, only the basics; this is the advantage of Michel Thomas.

So although both methods are nearly identical, they differ greatly in their execution.

When learning from a Michel Thomas Method course, one gets the feeling that the technique, though there, is much less refined. Thomas’s method of simply recording a lesson with actual students, rather than producing a lesson specifically designed as an audio course, leaves the method not realizing its full potential. Oftentimes, learning with Michel Thomas can feel like listening to the ramblings of a grumpy old man — and grumpy he certainly is, compared to the disturbingly chirpy Paul Noble! This is certainly where Paul Noble has the advantage, as his lessons, each designed from the outset to be an audio course rather than being so as an afterthought, replace the students with an actual native speaker giving examples of the sentences you are being taught. Michel Thomas, therefore, is not ideal for teaching proper pronunciation, as between Thomas’s strong German-sounding accent and the error of his students, you will often be left unsure of the proper pronunciation. And those students provide problems all of their own; in each course there is usually one student far behind both you and the other student, who is constantly making mistakes and generally holding you back, and this is without mentioning just how frustrating and annoying listening to them struggle with simple concepts can be. This is a problem that obviously does not exist in the Paul Noble courses.


This all adds up to make the Paul Noble courses far superior when it comes to getting a grasp for the language. Although Paul Noble will often leave you lacking, it will at the very least give you the basics, which is very important for being able to engage with people who speak the target language and further your learning. It is a great shame that both Paul Noble does not have such a wide array of language courses as Michel Thomas, and that he does not offer intermediate and advanced courses as Michel Thomas does, because, as a teacher, he is far better at his job.


But this is not to say that the Michel Thomas courses are not a good way of learning a language. Both methods are far superior to other methods you could pay for. My personal recommendation would be to treat Paul Noble as the beginner course, Michel Thomas’s basic course as the intermediate, and his advanced course as, well, advanced. This is because Michel Thomas and his successors just aren’t all that good at giving you the basics when you compare them to Paul Noble.

So which one should you buy, if you can’t afford all three? Well, it depends on your language level so far. If you already know a bit of your target language, I would recommend the thrifty to jump straight into Michel Thomas’s basic course, and repeat it twice. If you know nothing, start with Paul Noble. But as I said before, both methods sadly have their flaws, and taking them as a complete package helps to negate this, but how you spend your money is ultimately up to you.

But if you press me for a verdict, I would have to say that Paul Noble wins, hands down. He may not give you as advanced a level of the languages he teaches, but he is without a doubt better at his job.

Germans Do Everything Wrong: Real Medicine Will Get You Killed

Having now read about Germany’s pre-mediaeval understanding of disease, you will probably no longer be surprised to learn that their ideas about curing diseases are no less unscientific. It will probably not surprise anyone at this point that homeopathy—the idiotic belief that if you put something poisonous in water, then take it out again, the water becomes an antidote for that poison and anything with similar symptoms to it—was both invented in Germany, and is also highly popular here. Germans, being a highly nationalistic people (as we saw twice in the early 20th century), certainly prefer to throw their money away on local quackery rather than the foreign stuff.

Despite having a fairly good (and, of course, needlessly complicated) public healthcare system, German medicine is plagued with all kinds of pseudoscience, which doctors, insurers, and especially pharmacies support. Not only are homeopathy, chiropractic, herbal medicines, acupuncture and other such woo highly popular in Germany, but all of those treatments are also available for your pets! Picture it so:

You spent a few seconds too many standing under a ceiling fan, and now that you have an infection, which your German colleagues insist is draft-induced, you have arrived at the pharmacy with a prescription from the doctor. Let’s assume that a miracle has happened, and you’ve convinced your doctor that you don’t want Natural Brand Herbal Remedy X, and what your doctor has prescribed you is actual real medicine, to treat your actual real disease.

First, there is the high probability that you will be walking into a very popular pharmacy chain whose name literally translates as “preferably natural,” which tells you a little bit about their position on real medicine. Whether or not this is the case, it is still very likely that when you get to the desk, the pharmacist will look at your prescription and start to shake her head.

“Are you sure you want to be putting chemicals in your body?” she asks, incredulous. “We have a number of homeopathic remedies to treat this, and they are much better for your body.” You will, I hope, refuse, at which point she will probably start telling you about how the pet formulation of the particular brand she recommends has been working great on her horse. Germans, you see, love nothing more than a good anecdote, which they consider a suitable replacement for any and all forms of real evidence.

But you don’t even need to have a real disease to go to the pharmacy. Perhaps the reason Germany has such a fascination with fake medicine is they’ve managed to conjure up an equal number of fake illnesses to go with it! We’ve already learned about the dangers of air, but perhaps the most mysterious of these airy illnesses is the Föhnkrankheit, a very specific made up disease which is caused when wind blows over a mountain, down the other side, and onto you. The wind goes up the mountainside and cools, but—and here’s the twist!—as it comes back down the other side it warms up again, becoming a Föhn, a name for a thing so unnecessarily specific that it could only possibly be German! This magical process imbues the wind with evil juju, causing the sufferer a general sense of malaise and unease that is just perfect for homeopathic or herbal treatment!

One of the more dangerous sounding made up diseases (and one often blamed on the Föhn like some kind of made up illness Inception) is a Kreislaufzusammenbruch, literally a “circulatory collapse.” In any other country in the world, if your circulation collapses, you fall over and die, but not so in Germany, where a collapsed circulation makes you juuuuuust dizzy enough not to come into work today, but not enough to cause you actual bodily harm. You see, young auslander, all manner of vague and unusual symptoms can be blamed on vague circulatory problems, and we all know that the cause is stress. Tell your boss you’re having a circulatory collapse, and they’ll frown, wish you the best, and give you a stress-free week off work to recover. Vaguely defined diseases which are serious, but not serious enough to see a doctor about, are, you will find, a very common theme in Germany.

Coming from an Anglophone country as I and probably you, the reader, do, where employees are treated like mindless robots banned from having emotions whose only purpose seems to be to cost the company money, you would be forgiven for thinking that Germany being about the only country in the world to take stress seriously is a good thing. And you’d be right, except Germans don’t take stress seriously at all! Germans treat stress the way American teenagers treat the word “awesome.” Teenagers bandy around the word awesome like it actually means “something mildly amusing,” and Germans have about the same relationship with the word “stress,” using it to mean “something mildly annoying.” An array of made up diseases are caused by stress in Germany, and a number of real diseases are blamed on stress despite having very real, and sometimes much more dangerous, causes.

Or maybe Germans really are more stressed than their Anglophone counterparts despite having better working conditions, a lower cost of living, more housing security and a no-fuss approach to marriage that doesn’t break the bank. After all—between apartments that you practically have to build yourself, a nationwide refusal to adopt modern technologies that the rest of the world has had for decades, a general fear of anything that is mildly convenient, a national commitment to unnecessary rudeness, unhelpful customer service staff who see customers as an inconvenience and are determined to make sure they know about it, archaic forms and arbitrary rules that no one really knows the purpose of anyway, and a language that seems like it was built to be a complex interactive puzzle—as you will learn in this book, if there’s one thing Germans know how to do, it’s how to add a little extra stress to a situation that really doesn’t need it.



Up Next: “Let Me Correct You on Your English,” said the German to the American

And soon to come:


If You’re Too Incompetent to Succeed at Life, Become a German Public Servant!

All the special little ways German bureaucracy can make your life more miserable.

A Wohnung Need Not Necessarily Be Wohnable

Why finding a new apartment should be the most awful experience imaginable.



Interview with RPG Designer James “Grim” Desborough


Let start at the beginning. How did you get your start in RPG publishing, and what would you recommend to new writers today?

I got my start in games writing producing photocopied fan material and zines – very punk. Would be considered illegal to do these days, I’m sure. I’d sell them at conventions and around school, that sort of thing. Eventually me and a friend pitched a bunch of ideas to every RPG company we could find and SJG took the bait – and Munchkin was born. That was my ‘lift off’, I suppose.

Today I’d tell writers that it is an horrendously fractured and absurdly competitive field. That there’s no rules any more. That they’re probably better off self-publishing, but that it’s a lot more work and needs a fine balance of self promotion and not being a dick. When it comes to the fiction I’ve not cracked that yet.

What writers inspire you the most and why?

I would find it hard to point to any particular authors as I read fairly scattershot. I tend to prefer the science fiction authors of the 60s, 70s and 80s though. Harlan Ellison as much for his scathing wit as his work, Philip K Dick for his oddness. Niven and Pournelle for keeping the fantastical grounded. I grew up on comics a great deal, so Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Pat Mills, Warren Ellis and more are huge influences too.

And you occasionally write fiction as well as design games. Tell us a little bit about your writing.

I’ve written two books, one a collection of short stories called ‘Pulp Nova’ which takes a series of old pulp tropes and tries to update them with a more modern sensibility in some ways… so there’s space opera, cowboy, jungle adventure, vigilante and so on, but all with that slightly more self-aware perspective. Trying to get the best of both worlds. My other is a full length novel called ‘Old, Fat Punks’, which is a sort of political commentary and ‘caper’ book about three ageing punks who decide to assassinate the Prime Minister.

Writing is both easier and more difficult than games… there’s no rules to write and test and think about, but plotting and characterisation in a consistent way presents its own challenges – and the fiction market is even more flooded than the games market. It’s a tough thing to break into.

Tell us about the theme behind your latest novel.

‘Old Fat Punks’ is basically just a scream into the void, I guess. There’s a lot of people my age, older, younger, frustrated with the new status quo. The ethical vacuum on ‘both sides’ of the political spectrum. The populist rhetoric on the right, the authoritarian censorship and middle class prudishness on the left. It feels like a desperate, pointless time, and the OFP sort of channels that. Trying to be funny and thoughtful and to carry a message at the same time.

And Pulp Nova?

Of the stories in there I think I like ‘Ace Slamm’ best. It’s a space opera story with obvious references to well known space opera and it’s probably the least successful of the stories if I gauge by my stated aim… but it’s just fun, damn it.

Onto something a little more personal, why do you think are you considered such a controversial figure in gaming?

Way back in the mists of time there was talk about a reboot of the Lara Croft franchise. It wasn’t very public that the writer was Rhianna Pratchett at that time. There’s this one scene that was shown in publicity footage, of Lara being trapped and placed in what was – apparently – sexual peril by one of the baddies.

This kicked off a huge online shitstorm of the kind that have become banal and regular now, but at the time it was a relatively new phenomenon. People were demanding the game be changed, you know how it goes, we’ve seen it play out hundreds of times. In arguing the toss it became apparent that a lot of people – ostensibly liberals – were absolutely NOT any longer in favour of free speech. Certainly not when it comes to depictions of sexual violence, no matter the context, no matter if the aggressor ends up beaten or killed.

This concerned me a great deal. I’ve always been concerned about free speech and peril, violence, threat – whatever its nature – ‘conflict’, most broadly, is the essence of storytelling. Sure, using rape or sexual violence can be lazy, but it’s not always. That’s subjective and that’s no reason to censor artists.

I wrote an article called ‘In Defence of Rape’ speaking about the use of rape (and torture and murder and other forms of nastiness) in fiction and defending it. Most people, it seems, didn’t read past the title, and I’m still getting near-daily shit over it some years later.

How have your critics affected your work?

The funny thing is that I agree with lots of the aims they, the social justice crowd, claim to be prosecuting. I just put free expression and art first, above those concerns. I don’t think you address social concerns by neutering content. I think you make people think about these things by including (or excluding) them and sometimes you just want to be fun. Now though, every time I do anything I’m half thinking about the reaction. Whether to court it or escape the controversy. I struggle to be free of self censure because the idiocy of the extremes is so toxic.

Has it affected you financially?

It’s swings and roundabouts. There’s a lot of people who will back someone or something that pisses off the PC police, but it makes freelancing and other work harder to get, especially for the (relatively speaking) larger companies who don’t want to deal with any potential backlash.

Short term it’s good, long term… probably bad.

I was reading an article the other day about Van Gogh, and how contrary to popular belief, he made great art in spite of his mental illness, not because of it, and how that’s all the more remarkable. What is your experience as a creative dealing with depression?

I think it can fuel creativity in a couple of ways. First it can give you a different perspective and secondly there is a kind of… fierce introspection and focus that can come with depression. Other times, of course, it just means you can’t work at all. Doubt, exhaustion, misery, they don’t help at all but sometimes aspects of it can.

More harm than help though.

Do you think the negative attention you get has an effect on your depression, or does the debate fuel you?

Anger is better than sadness. I try not to think about it and I wouldn’t want anyone to treat me any differently. When I’m really down though, it does make it worse. The frustration of people not even attempting to listen, understand or see the other side of the debate and being painted as things I’m not (all the *ists) is a constant grind though.

Any closing remarks?

Creative endeavours are hard for everyone these days. If you can, pay artists somehow, especially the independents. Buy a book, chuck them a buck a month on Patreon, remove adblock on their blogs or Youtube channels. Its tough, even for people who are good. A culture of patronage really helps everyone.


Recap: Spiel in Essen 2016

A recap on some of my favourite games from Essen this year:


Although I heard little more from the Modiphius team about their Conan RPG that you don’t already know if you receive their newsletter, except that it’s due to be finished in a month or two, I did get to speak to Frederik Malmsburg, owner of the Conan and wider Robert E. Howard properties, about his plans. Not only is he a really wonderful, charismatic guy (Fred, not Conan), but he clearly loves what he does and proves that Howard’s legacy is in really good hands. Fred told us how his current plans are to explore TV options for Conan that allow them to stick closer to the original canon, now that Game of Thrones has paved the way for fantasy on screen. If such a series turned out successful, he could build on that success to bring Solomon Kane and even El Borak to the screen. Another Conan movie, he said, is not a dead project. Arnie is still there and interested, but getting that kind of project greenlighted takes a lot of work.


Modiphius: Kung Fu Panda and Siege of the Citadel

One of the most anticipated games of Essen this year was Modiphius’s reboot of the age old classic Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel, which was recently launched on Kickstarter. Although the game wasn’t ready to see at the show, fans got a chance to see the game in action at Modiphius’s Community Party, which they throw every year nearby to launch their newest products. As you can see from the photograph, the game is compatible with many of the components from the old game, which were used for the test game at the party. The rules have had a major update though, and extra scenarios have been written to make the game even more exciting than ever.


Just as anticipated—which I found completely surprising—was the Kung Fu Panda game which Modiphius has been developing for just over a year now. When I saw the game last year, I was doubtful that the game was simple enough for kids to understand, because it was a real time dice rolling game like, for example, Escape from the Temple, but after seeing a lot more games using that mechanic and seeing the updated alpha version this year I’ve changed my mind on that. For one thing, the game has been simplified so it runs much more smoothly. Effectively, you are attempting to roll dice combinations in order to defeat the enemies on the board while the sand timer slowly trickles out, with each character needing different combinations. Each claw symbol you roll moves the enemies closer to you as them move along a track drawn on the board, and once they come into contact with you, each claw becomes a wound, locking the dice. If you end up with all your dice locked, you’re wounded, and can’t do anything until the sand timer is reset. It’s definitely a lot of fun, and with enemies now moving on tracks it’s a lot quicker and simpler to play—and the boards will look nicer for it.


Z War One

Like a lot of people, I’m naturally drawn to the zombie genre, but I have to say I’ve usually been disappointed with games building on that theme. Z War One, though, really caught my attention. It uses much deeper, more tactical mechanics that really make it a much more immersive experience than, say, Zombicide. Each scenario is different, providing a unique experience each time, and is balanced to ensure that if you succeed, you do so really by the skin of your teeth each time, which makes for a real nail biting experience, even when your only opponent is the game itself.

What really got me excited, though, was the different play modes, just like those “video games” I used to play before high quality board games became a thing. You can play against the game cooperatively, or you can up the difficulty and have another player play “the director,” taking control of the zombies and working against you. Even better, if you buy at a con like Essen, you get extra rules for playing an old school deathmatch against another player. Awesome stuff.

If I had to recommend just one game from Essen this year, this one would be it.


Blood Bowl

Blood Bowl is at the top of the list of many people’s all time favourite games. With dozens of teams to choose from, Blood Bowl’s asymmetric gameplay is endlessly interesting, and its light, tactical rules make each game and each team unique. The new edition has been beefed up to the 40mm standard preferred by most Blood Bowl leagues, but the rules remain the same. And of course the new models are gorgeous. The game comes with a set of dice for each player, including a d16 for random player selection, which previous editions lacked. Even better, all the components (apart from of course the boards) are made from Games Workshop’s own plastic, which not only makes everything higher quality but keeps everything in-house. All in all, this is one hell of a revival of one of the most beloved games of all time, and really shows Games Workshop is continuing its recent trend of listening to its community.



Although we didn’t get a chance to play Lobotomy, we did see it on the gaming table, and it looks awesome, and for an awesome price. For just €80, you get loads of models, a beautiful gaming board, and tons and tons of tokens, cards and scenery. I was actually jaw-droppingly surprised at just how much you got for your money. It’s a game about escaping from an asylum which, at least in the heads of the escapees, is being taken over by demons. If you’re thinking of getting it, it’s a definite buy. Go for it.



I have to admit, I wasn’t super impressed with Argo, but it’s the simple gameplay that got me to buy it. In Argo, you take control of five astronauts who have awoken from cryo only to find their ship under attack from aliens, with each astronaut having his or her own special ability. Your other players each have a set of astronauts just like yours, with your goal being to get your guys to the escape pods while scoring as much points as possible. The game starts to get very crowded very quickly, meaning that as your dudes are running around you’re pushing and shoving other player’s characters around, into rooms where aliens are waiting to eat them, into teleporters, and other hazards. In Argo, the real danger aren’t the aliens, but your other players. It’s the kind of simple, strategy-based game that I just love, and plays in about 20 minutes.


Ice Cool

I really wanted to like this game, because so many people have been raving about it. And to be honest, I did like it—I just didn’t love it! For those who don’t know, Ice Cool is a flicking game where three players take the role of penguins running around the school halls collecting fish, while another player takes their turn as a hall monitor, trying to catch the other penguins by bumping into them. The design off the penguins—effectively miniature Weebles—means it’s possible to flick them in ways to make them do tricks: you can curve round corners, lean to one side to catch a penguin just out of reach, or even flick them on the head to flip over walls—which is explicitly allowed in the rules. If you’ve got kids, this is a great game you can play with them where you’ll enjoy yourself just as much as they do, at least for a couple of rounds. If you haven’t got kids, but you like penguins, you’ll probably have fun with this too. And if you don’t like penguins: what kind of a heartless monster are you?


Germans Do Everything Wrong: The Draft Will Get You Killed

I have decided to begin posting extracts from my sometime-next-year “soon” to be released new book, “Germans Do Everything Wrong (and a few things they get right)”. First up:

The Draft Will Get You Killed

No, not the kind where your government drags you off to fight in its wars without your consent. We suspended that in 2011. No, we’re talking about something far more deadly here.

Ask any German, and they will tell you that air, in its various states of motion, is the cause of all illness. It seems that concepts like viruses and bacteria simply haven’t reached Germany yet, which has instead gotten stuck on the miasma theories of pre-scientific medieval Europe. You see, the German relationship with air is so perplexing because it is, like most of the things wrong with Germany, completely self-contradictory and yet they are just as completely unaware of this fact.

Let us start with the German fear of the draft. Germans believe, with absolute conviction, that air moving through a building can bring even the strongest German to his knees, starting with a stiffness in the neck, progressing to a sore throat, and progressing, in various stages, to full-blown bed-ridden debilitation. I have even heard Germans assign it as the cause of their co-worker’s meningitis, with said co-worker nodding in agreement.

You’d think this was a fear of outside air—which I am about to confirm and which will be contradicted later—and Germans would tend to agree. If it’s at all likely to be windy outside, you’d better wear a scarf, even if it’s 90 degrees out there and not a cloud in the sky. If you don’t, you’ll certainly get a sore throat from all that wind doing … something—the mechanism for all these things is never really explained.

Of course, it’s not just air coming from outside that is the problem but—and take note here, for this will be contradicted later—the very movement itself which causes illness. Thus not only will you find German offices and homes so well insulated as to be hermetically sealed from any outside air, you will also find them lacking in fans, air vents, or modern air conditioning and forced air heating systems. These all cause air to move, and are therefore highly dangerous.

But here’s the kicker. German are afraid of air that moves, but they are equally afraid of air that isn’t moving. Stale air, as much as air that happens to be moving, will make you sick. Thus, despite spending their whole day hermetically sealed from the outside world, Germans will, like clockwork, get up every morning and open all the windows to air out their houses. You can literally, I kid you not, buy charts which tell you exactly how long to open your windows for each day of the year as the seasons change, adjusted for whether you are opening them fully or have them tilted.

Combine this fear of stale air with a German’s deathly fear of mould and you get an explosive obsession with airing out their apartments. In their pursuit of a completely damp-free home, Germans, you will be amused to discover, all squeegee down their showers after use—you know, that one thing in your house that is literally designed to get and be wet. You’d think the whole mould thing would be the explanation for their obsession with airing out their apartments. It makes sense—cold countries mean cold houses, mean less frequently opening the windows so as to keep the heat in, mean mould—but it isn’t. Stale air is bad, and mould is bad, but are completely unrelated concepts, apparently.

Of course, the amusing part is when this fear of stale air conflicts with a fear of the draft. It results either in a ridiculous situation where Germans seal off a part of their house, open the windows in it and then close the door and go hide in another room and cower until this whole thing is all over, or in them running around, opening all the windows, and then pegging it out the door while they go do their shopping out of fear that the slightest touch of moving air will get them killed. If only there existed some sort of modern technology designed to ventilate buildings…

But it gets worse, for the rules on moving air vs. stale air start to get a little bit more complicated when the seasons come into play. If, for example, it is a stifling day in the middle of summer and the office is hot and humid, your German co-workers will insist that the windows must remain closed, because, of course, drafts kill. But in mid-winter, it is the fear of stale air that takes precedent, so that it is not uncommon to enter the office on a cold winter morning to find all the windows thrown open to let in the frosty air, with any attempt to close them being met with a stern talk about the dangers of stale air and an insistence that we must remain just as cold as if we were standing outside naked in the snow for the benefit of our health. It seems that the rules of balancing the threat stale air against that of moving air are more complicated and esoteric than they seem, with the only hard and fast rule seeming to be that the situation which is most suitable to a German in a given circumstance is that which makes everybody else the most uncomfortable—which actually pretty accurately describes just about any situation in Germany about equally well.

So what the hell is going on here? Well, if you press a German on this and repeatedly point out the contradictions, you will eventually get to a point where they tell you that it’s not the moving air that’s the problem, but air that moves through a room. Germans even have a special word for this that no other language has: “Durchzug,” meaning “through movement.” Remember a few paragraphs back I told you to take note, for contradictions were on their way? Well, I ask said Germans, if it’s air moving through a room that’s a problem, then why are you deathly scared of fans, vents and air con? “Ah,” they will tell you, “well that’s different.” If you press them for an explanation, instead of actually getting one, you’ll just get a story about their co-worker who once used a fan and got meningitis. Trust me.

You’d think (and hope) that we’d be through with this by now, but we aren’t. There are, apparently, benefits to air too, as long as you’re in the countryside, outside, and have your neck safely covered in case of wind. For you see, if you do fall ill, probably because of the air, of course, rather than insist on bed rest and some actual medicine, your doctor is equally likely to prescribe you a trip to the countryside to indulge in the miraculous healing properties of fresh green air. Which brings us onto our next topic…


Up Next: Real Medicine Will Get You Killed

Review: Fantasy Dice by Radical Approach

Genre: Fantasy – Traditional Fantasyfantasy-dice-300

GNS: Narrativist-Simulationist

Rules Weight: Medium to Heavy

Where To Buy: Print – PDF

I don’t quite know where to place Fantasy Dice. It’s an odd sort of game to catagorise because it blends roleplaying and gaming really damn nicely. For example, during character creation, as well as picking a number of numerical values to represent skills and attributes, you get to choose a number of values described only by words, which are designed to encourage roleplaying as well as tactical play. One of these is something called Talents, which represents something that that character can do that isn’t represented by a skill or specialisation, anything from playing nice love songs to being able to tell the time of night by the stars.

Something I also really like about this book is its constant emphasis on the social aspect of roleplaying games. Rather that offering strict rules in many places about how to deal with a situation, which would encourage rules-lawyering and constant flicking through the rule book, it encourages players and DMs to come to a consensus. This is pretty ubiquitous with the character creation, with many of the quantitative descriptors only taking effect if the other players think it reasonable. Taking the Talents example, although the DM is reserved the right to alter any Talent that becomes too broadly applied during play, it encourages the player to offer a more refined Talent and for the other players to help out.

What really caught my eye about the Fantasy Dice engine was, as the name suggests, the die mechanics. It’s a concept I’d been playing around with in my head but never fully implemented, and to see that someone else had already come up with it and put it into effect made me curious.

It’s a dice pool system which works sort of like a reverse ORE. Where ORE extracts two values from a role, Fantasy Dice puts two values into it. Namely, how many dice you roll is determined by your attribute, while what dice you roll is determined by your skill. You can also add bonus dice by having skill specialisations, such as being good with swords.

Another interesting part of the die mechanics — and I’m not going to pretend I’d come up with this one too — is the idea of scaling. Effectively, you can alter your dice pool by either discarding one die and increasing the dice type by one die step, or decreasing the die by one step to increase the number of dice by one. For example, if you had 2d6, you could choose to roll either 1d8 or 3d4 as well. You’re always allowed to scale down all the day to d4s, but you can only scale up until you end up with one die. Scaling up allows you to roll higher numbers at the cost of higher probability of failure so that you can achieve an action you normally could not, while scaling down allows you to roll in more of a bell-curve to reduce the risk of failure.

When you’ve rolled your dice, all but the highest roll are discarded. If the highest roll beats or matches the target number (between 2 and 12), you’ve succeeded. However, how well you succeed is determined by how many over the roll you are, with matching or being one over being a partial success, where the DM is instructed to tell you that “you succeed, but” and insert a minor complication. If you’re exceptionally successful, you get an “and”. Failures follow the same pattern, but in reverse. I think this rule is a really simple addition that adds a lot of flavour.

Modifiers add or subtract the number of dice you get to use, rather than changing the difficulty or adding numerical modifiers. Harking back to the social aspect, the rules explicitly state that honesty is the best policy, and that the DM should roll in front of the players at all times and offers a number of options to avoid fudging the dice. If a secret roll needs to be made — for example, to find a hidden door, where the players shouldn’t be allowed to know the difference between “you don’t find one” and “there isn’t one” — it suggests either asking the players to roll their dice under a book the DM is holding so that they can’t see the result, or to use a method called “average rolls”. These work in the same way as D&D 4e defences, as a target number the DM has to roll against.

A lot of the book is like this. It presents any rule that isn’t fundamental as an option, rather than a restriction. I do like this, because I feel all the way like I’m being encouraged to play a roleplaying game rather than a rules-heavy board game like D&D became with 4e, but I often feel like some optional rules should simply have been declared part of the core rules. The “average rolls” for example, which I plan on using. Because they’re optional, there’s nowhere for them on the character sheet, which makes recording them fiddly.

Back to character creation, one of the things that sets Fantasy Dice apart is its unique and wonderful attributes system. You can tell just from looking at them that they’re well thought-out and carefully balanced, and you can tell just from reading this that I like them.

Each attribute is paired with another. Increasing an attribute during character creation reduced the paired attribute by an equal amount. Each attribute starts as your “racial average” and is allowed to be deviated up to 2 points from it in this manner.

So, for example, Strength and Agility are paired, because a heavily-muscled character and a lithe character are at opposite ends of the Strength-Agility spectrum. The works nicely with racial averages, so that, for example, orcs are always stronger and more agile than the other races, even if their attributes are adjusted up and down in character creation.

Dexterity and Sight represent fine motor skills and senses. I want to note here that I’m glad to see Agility and Dexterity as separate attributes, as their grouping together has always been a pet peeve of mine, a holdover from the dawn of roleplaying that people are too sentimental to shake. Although Sight represents all the senses, it clarifies that a character’s or creature’s Sight is primarily whatever their dominant method of sensing is, so that a bat, though blind, might still have a high Sight because its echolocation serves the same purpose.

Although I fully agree with the the pairing, it took me a little deduction to come to that agreement, because the justification given is a little thin. We’re told, “Many who spend all their time on their handy work grow near sighted.” That’s entirely true, but because that’s all the justification given, it makes it look like a weak argument. I feel that an extra justification is needed, like “Those who spent a lot of time on intricate work tend to pay far too much attention to detail and so miss what’s going on in the world around them.” I know from experience that’s true.

For mental abilities, if the human mind were a computer, Cunning is RAM; Wisdom is ROM. I rather like the justification for pairing Cunning and Wisdom: “Those who lack cunning tend to make up for it with academics achievement.” Roleplayers tend to be of the more-intelligent breed, so I’ll ask you this: how many people do you know who make up for their lack of brainpower and deductive reasoning by memorising rote facts to spew off in an attempt to mimic intelligence, or at least what their primitive minds see as intelligence?

The only problem I have with this pairing is that the description of Wisdom more resembles knowledge, while the description of Cunning is not unlike what wisdom actually is. In fact, in my mind, I believe wisdom and cunning to be synonyms. I agree with the concept entirely, but I think it’s a poor choice of names. I have the same problem with Wisdom and Intelligence in D&D.

Demon and Spirit represent the balance of good and evil inside us all, Demon being our ego, our selfish drive to improve our own position in the world, and Spirit our passion, our desire to make a difference to it. I do feel these names are a little vague and nondescript, although I have to accept it is appropriate for a fantasy setting.If anarcho-capitalists have high Demon, then hippies have high Spirit. That’s quite fitting, actually. I withdraw my criticism.

One more thing, Demon represents your reflex and initiative. I’m not quite sure why, and I wonder if this is the only time in the entire book where I’ve seen game balance trump roleplaying.

Character creation really is about building a character with character. The amount of qualitative values comes pretty close to the quantitative ones and have about as much significance. To use qualitative characteristics, the player is given “trigger ammo” that allows them to affect the narrative by triggering an event related to their characteristics. This is a finite resource which changes hands between the players and the DM to affect the story, with spent ammo being handed out as a reward for roleplaying bad decisions that give the character penalties to rolls, or being used by the DM to keep the plot moving without fudging dice.

All that I’ve mentioned is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much material to make your character just how you want them, and I haven’t even gotten onto magic yet.

The descriptive theme continues into combat. Wounds aren’t numerical, but qualitative, ranging from superficial to mortal, with weapons always dealing the same degree of damage on a successful attack. A number of factors can increase the damage, though, or decrease it. Special tactics, degrees of success and armour all affect damage.

The type of damage a character can sustain is based on their toughness, which is derived from their Strength. There are no hit points, and tougher characters are able to shrug off damage until damage of a high enough order is dealt in a strike.

As for making an attack, I like that this system uses opposed rolls. Characters get two actions, and if they don’t hold one action back to use in defence, they don’t get to roll for defence. I’m a big fan of this type of combat because it keeps players involved at all stages of combat.

If you haven’t declared a target area, you roll for hit location. I usually feel that hit location charts lead you down a dark path that ends in cut shape templates and spleen penetration rolls. However, I actually feel that the descriptive nature of Fantasy Dice combat largely averts this. But if you do like cut shape templates and spleen penetration rolls, you can always buy the Trauma add-on pack.

The combat section is extensive and heavily emphasises roleplaying throughout. There is a section on combat improvisation that tells you how to use non-combat skills to gain the upper hand, such as taunting or deceiving your opponent. The grappling section is particularly nice because it provides a framework in which to work and lists a few possible maneuvers, but again instructs the DM that above all they are playing a roleplaying game and players should be able to perform any reasonable action they can think of.

Once combat is over, characters have to deal with Trauma, which is latent damage from wounds taken. This can result in characters collapsing or becoming crippled once the adrenaline wears off, and puts them at a disadvantage later. Like everything, it’s a mixture of roleplaying advice and penalties to rolls.

The magic system is extensive and takes up about a third of the book. The different magical schools are herbology and alchemy, and the arcane arts of witchcraft, sorcery and black arts. I’d be here forever if I described each one in detail, so I’ll try to be brief.

The section on arcane arts is actually a guide on magic and creating magic systems rather than a system in itself. It offers much advise for the study of magic by characters and explains the differences between the three types of magic available in the game. Witchcraft acts like nature magic and tends to deal with non-offensive spells that heal, repel evil or aid the adventurers. Sorcery, on the other hand, is an offensive art, but also includes utility spells like witchcraft but of a more elemental feel. Black arts are the evil counterpart of witchcraft and although very similar, has much more sinister consequences.

All magical arts are somewhere between low and high magic, with each having consequences; sorcery being exhausting, witchcraft requiring rituals and sacrifice, and the dark arts coming with all sorts of dangers.

After reading through the book once, I still feel I’ve got a lot more I can glean from it. It’s really deep in the idea of roleplaying and I think that’s something a lot of games are missing. In many ways I feel it’s very D&D-inspired, simplifying certain rules and using the space to add in new rules that encourage roleplaying and tactics over rules-lawyering. If you’re looking for a game that has a Dungeons and Dragons feel but a better system where the rules act as tools rather than laws, I highly recommend Fantasy Dice; it’s clearly well thought-out and intelligently put together. In parts, I feel it tried to be too generic, but if you’re looking for a setting to go with the game, I hear Radical Approach’s Crimson Exodus utilises the Fantasy Dice engine. But honestly, although there are a few sticking points, mainly semantic, if I had creative control over D&D 5e, this is the kind of direction I’d push it in.

Integrity: **** The rules are consistent, but are a lot to learn. That all modifiers affect the number of dice rolled makes for very quick improvisation. The games allows a lot of room for roleplaying, but emphasises that roleplaying can’t be used to cheat the rules of the game.

Combat: ***** The combat is tactical and interesting, using a standard “rounds and turns” format, but with extra rules that allow roleplaying to pay a key part in the combat.

Speed: *** The dice mechanics make for very fast task resolution, but the extra time is used to make room for roleplaying rather than speeding up the game.

Review: Blood! by Postmortem Studios

Genre: Horror23173

GNS: Simulationist

Rules Weight: Medium to Heavy

Where To Buy: RPGNow

What drew my attention to Blood! was its emulation of the survival horror genre. Often I’ve played or ran zombie survival games only for them to fall apart due to rules that are too abstract and restrictive, games that weren’t designed around the concept of a monster that can only really be killed with a blow to the head. So I picked up Blood! along with its zombie adventure Blood Tales: The End.

Leafing through the rulebook, I find it hard to classify the rules weight. It’s a d100 system, which is a generally versatile die mechanic because it allows for easy adjustment and easy gauging of risk. The only things I don’t like about d100 are that it also allows players to do the same, reducing their chances taking certain risks, and that it doesn’t have a bell curve. Call me picky, but I also don’t like the fact that so many games use it either.

Adding to this confusion of weight is the fact that dice rolls are very simplified. There’s no counting degrees of success as in other d100 games. A roll is either a botch, fail, success or critical, and effects for each are consistent from one skill use to another. Opposed checks work the same way: your skill level represents your chances of getting each type of roll, and it’s your type, not your number, that is compared to the opponent. The system for comparing them is just as simple: either you drew, or someone did better than the other and they win the contest.

The reason I find it difficult to classify the rules weight is that although the rules look more complicated than average on paper, they play through pretty simply. Character creation requires a few sums, but nothing complicated; add 20 to one of your attributes, divide an attribute by this etc. But once you get this out the way, and it doesn’t take long, everything is set up for you and recorded on the character sheet.

Characters in Blood! are the average people who are the victims of so many horror movies. No one is special, and many skills are purposely designed to be useless, such as “Pub Games”. If you want to play yourself in a zombie survival setting, as I do, this is pretty perfect (although I personally am not very good at pub games).

Dying in Blood! is about as much fun as staying alive. In fact, being a horror game, dying and losing body parts is a key part of the game. It’s also nicely realistic. You have Hit Points, which measure your stamina, really. Losing all your Hit Points won’t kill you, but will make you much easier to harm. This is realistic. A person can take a real beating and be reduced to a winded, whimpering ball on the floor without ever being at risk of death, but once they’re in that position they become a lot more vulnerable.

It’s losing Blood Points that kills you. Blood Points are literally that — they are your body’s ability to cope with blood loss. Weapon damage is grouped into types, with sharper weapons dealing more blood loss, while blunt weapons tend to deal just HP damage at lower levels. A particularly severe blow from any weapon, though, will lead to a character bleeding out each round until they run completely out of Blood Points. First Aid is very important in this game.

There’s an optional Energy Points which measure exhaustion. I won’t be using these as I see Hit Points as fulfilling this role, so I won’t mention them any further.

As I said, the game is great for zombies, as well as other viruses. It provides rules for both fast (Fury Virus) and slow (Zombie Plague) types, as well as vampires, an insanity disease, the meteor-induced blindness from Day of the Triffids, and a few others.

Only after learning all the different ways characters can be maimed and killed do we learn about how combat — the art of not being maimed and killed — actually works. This order seems rather fitting. Combat is relatively simple. Aimed attacks are dealt with nicely with four basic areas and different effects applied to successful attacks directed at those areas. Combat works like any other skill checks: both combatants roll and compare their successes, the defender declaring which type of defensive action they’re taking. One abstraction that I like is the idea that although a knife can’t be used to parry another weapon, it can be used to ward an attacker off with a thrust and a wave.

The rules for burst and automatic weapon fire are versatile, but their realism is debatable. Effectively, the more bullets you expend, the less accurate your fire but the more damage you can do. Whether that’s realistic or not is a debate to be had on a forum, not a review, and to be honest I can’t say I know of a game that does any better. Like grappling, automatic fire is something roleplaying games are yet to iron out.

Ah, grappling. It’s not simple enough to be used without reference to the book, at least if this is your first time playing, but it at least uses the same core mechanics. Opposed checks are made and a draw results in a stalemate, a success results in the attacker being given one of three options (ground and pound, drag or pin) with each applying various effects. On the defender’s turn, they can choose to break free or reverse the grapple. How difficult this is to do depends on how well the attacker did last round. It’s certainly more fun-sounding and workable that other methods I’ve seen.

I forgot to mention, each action requires you to spend a point of Action, whether you’re initiating an action or opposing it. This means, if you want to go all out, you can, but you cannot defend against attacks. You can carry Action Points over into the next round if you don’t use them all, but there’s a maximum to how many you can hold. The game recommends the GM distribute beads or coins or something similar to track this. Action Points style combat has always been my favourite, so it would be biased for me to rate the game on this, but, yeah, I like it.

Many more methods of attacking characters are also described, including running them over and crashing into their vehicle, and there’s a chase mechanic. I notice that there’s no mention of how you roll to hit in this circumstance or how dodging works, only damage, but I assume it requires a success on the drive skill and there dodging as in combat. I also distinctly notice that the section on dealing damage to a vehicle lists tires, headlights and engine blocks but makes no mention of smashing windows. In zombie survival game, or indeed any game where the enemy is trying to smash their way to you, I’d consider this vital.

The game also has an integrated fear and insanity system, where the setting wears away at the characters slowly. When you lose your Mind Points, you lose your mind in various ways. Unlike, say, Cthulhu, getting to a safe place and resting up restores your Mind Points.

That’s half the book dealt with, and about a quarter of that was about how to kill people.  Of the rest, about half is a list of creatures, then there’s a weapons table covering every conceivable improvised weapon (it’s about 200 items long), and then the book finishes up with critical hits tables for every conceivable form of damage.

Overall, I feel the game very accurately depicts the horror genre in a way no other game does. It’s a game about the victims who fought back, and I feel it puts more control in the hands of the players than Cthulhu-type games do. To counter this, the level of action is a lot more intense, providing for a much more combat-oriented experience.

As for playability, the game sets itself up in a unique way that, though very thorough, plays pretty consistently. All actions, whether opposed or unopposed, use the same mechanic. The only times you’ll need to flick through the book are in specific circumstances such as such as critical hits or insanity, and in these cases I think the suspense of the players watching you flick through the book to find out what happens to their character will work well. Grappling and automatic fire, I imagine, can be printed out for reference or memorised with enough play-through. I already have the automatic fire rules memorised, and I’ve only read them once

Integrity: **** There’s some table-referencing in specific circumstances and the process of deriving certain statistics is unique to each, but in these cases the system is laid out pretty clearly and the simple dice mechanism is always the same no matter what.

Combat: **** Combat is simulationist and requires some bookkeeping as it’s much less abstract than more gamey RPGs, but it’s also short and deadly. This leaves combat open to a number of clever tactical choices.

Speed: **** Despite its apparent complexity, the game plays fairly quickly. However, it gets slowed down in certain circumstances, such as rolling criticals, aimed shots and grappling.

Interview with Graham Bottley of Arion Games, Creator of Advanced Fighting Fantasy

Following my review of Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2nd Edition, in which I mentioned my desire to interview its creator Graham Bottley, the man himself contacted me and offered me just that. Here’s what we talked about.

How long were you working on AFF and what drew you to it as a project?
Gamebooks got me into roleplaying all those years ago (specifically Forest of Doom) and AFF was a game I played a lot when young. I even did my own rewrite back then adding in the sorcery spells etc. So when my resurrection of the Maelstrom RPG was so successful, I decided that the time was ripe for AFF to make a comeback. I contacted Steve and after I got the OK, it took about 6 months to write, playtest and then rewrite.

What do you think the most significant changes are from Dungeoneer?
There are a few major changes and quite a few minor ones. We added in an armour system, as there was none before. We completely changed Holy magic so that it was distinctive. We added in talents to help further distinguish similar characters. We added in Sorcery magic

We also tweaked character creation, combat, spellcasting and some of the action rules. And we added in a dungeon generation system, and loads of optional rules. We did leave out the adventure, but that 3 part campaign should see the light of day again in the near future.

I never played the original AFF. What were the problems with the Dungeoneer system that 2nd Edition fixes?
The character creation in Dungeoneer was badly broken and lead to a large disparity in character ability. AFF2 introduces talents which helps define otherwise similar characters (always an issue with a rules light game).

We introduced sorcerer magic in AFF2 which offers more options but is finely balanced with wizardry. Many of the wizardry spells in Dungeoneer were broken, especially STAMINA. Priests in Dungeoneer were just wizards by another name (identical mechanics).

Character advancement was very wonky in Dungeoneer.

There are no armour rules in Dungeoneer. We also added some more combat options in AFF2 to give a bit of variety.

Why did you feel that rewriting The Wishing Well was the right idea? Also, why did you choose to put the adventure before the rest of the rules?
One of the great things about AFF is that it works as an introductory game for those who have read the gamebooks or even those with no knowledge of gaming. And we wanted to include an introductory adventure that anyone could pick up and GM in 10 minutes.

Now, whilst I loved those two FF dungeons (Wishing Well and Hives of Peril), they were very weird in places and quite difficult to run if you had no previous RPG experience. So the goal was to include something very straightforward and easy to pick up and play, whilst at the same time including a bit of the Titan humour and feel. We also put the adventure there (with stripped down rules) so that novices could pick up the book and be playing very quickly without feeling they had to learn the full rules first. These concepts have been quite popular with new gamers and is similar to the old red box D&D which had a “choose your own adventure” before the rules or character creation were explained.

How does grappling work and is it in the book somewhere?
There have never before been any formal rules for grappling, and we didn’t include any in the book, mainly because we couldn’t in playtests find anything that was balanced but kept the feel of the game. I am minded to put together some rules and post them on my forums for those that need them. Any suggestions welcome!

What are your plans for the future of AFF and how long does your licence run for? How will Blacksand differ from the original?
The license has got a good few years left yet, and assuming it keeps doing well should be continued beyond that. We are working on a SciFi version of the ruleset (, Beyond the Pit, a Salamonis sourcebook and more.

Blacksand, the bulk of the writing should be finished tomorrow morning, will have much of the original information about the city from the original book, expanded with new setting material and with some new rules etc as well.

I’ve seen it mentioned that mass combat rules are absent from the core rulebook and that you were holding it for a later release. Is it in a currently released book?
Mass combat and wilderness creation rules were included in the recently released Heroes Companion (available from our webstore and very soon through all normal channels) along with loads of new magic types, organisation and hireling rules and more.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the Crown of Kings campaign and the Heroes Companion?
The Crown of Kings campaign is a fairly faithful adaptation of the four gamebooks. I tried not to add in too much extra information outside of what was originally found there, but if you want to use it as a framework to add on other mini-quests, that is very easy. I always loved the Sorcery series because it starts off very low fantasy and atmospheric in the Shamutanti hills, goes a bit crazy in Khare, adds in some plot in the Baklands and then comes to an epic conclusion in Mampang.

The Heroes Companion is intended to provide options, and add other bits that were left out from the original books. So we have quite a few new magic systems, some rules for hirelings and organisations, mass battles and other bits and pieces. All of these additions are purely optional and can be used from the start of a campaign or added in at a later date as they are options that most heroes will grow into rather than start with.  Although we have had some issues with our main printer on this one, slowing down the release a bit, it should be out very soon (and I have a short print run available from my webstore).

RPG Review: Advanced Fighting Fantasy by Arion Games

Genre: Fantasy – Low Fantasy – Sword and Sorceryadvanced_fighting_fantasy_m

GNS: Narrativist

Rules Weight: Light to Medium

Where To Buy: Cubicle 7

Advanced Fighting Fantasy is a simple system. So simple, in fact, that I was in half a mind not to buy it because I could probably work out the rules by reading a couple of reviews and applying a little mental acrobatics. What got me to make the dive, though, was really the weapons and armour system.

It’s a unique system that really solves the shortcomings of using a d6-only system. Instead of having fixed weapon damage and armour damage reduction, you roll your d6, where other games would specify different sized dice to roll. You then compare your result to a handy little chart unique to each weapon that you copy to your character sheet. Higher rolls correspond to more damage but not necessarily equal to your result. For example, rolling a 1-5 while unarmed scores 1 damage, while rolling 6 scores two.  Bigger weapons may have minimum damages of 2 or 3 and higher potential damage for higher rolls.

You do the same for damage reduction. I like it, because it makes the d6 more versatile and allows for randomness and minimum damage without having to mess about with multiple dice. I’ve always liked games that allow for variable armour, because it allows the possibility that a character strikes you in an unprotected place. I also like that it puts action first and memorisation second, because instead of consulting your sheet to see what dice you roll, you just roll one die every time and then consult the 6-figure chart.

Actually, I lie. It wasn’t just the damage system that drew me in. Anyone who played Fighting Fantasy gamebooks as a kid probably knows that the world of Titan in which they are set has a uniquely dark, grim and weird atmosphere. Considering that it’s written by the minds behind Warhammer, you can see the resemblance. That unique feel is something that I’ve always missed in games such as Dungeons and Dragons, which emphasise high fantasy settings filled with idealism and romance where the worst thing that ever happens is the caravans not getting through (which is economically unsound when you think about it; if the caravans aren’t getting through, traders will go elsewhere and the bandits will leave, having no more loot to feast on, and then the caravans will be able to get through again).

It’s with this in mind that I turn our attention to the included adventure. After a short introduction to the rules, we’re thrust into an adventure, before we’ve even been told how to make a character. Many have complained about this, but I think it’s a perfect illustration of just how easy the rules are to grasp, and that was probably the point of this layout. What bugs me about this adventure isn’t where it is in the book, but where it is in the game world.

Many people reviewing this 2nd edition of AFF use Dungeoneer — the core rulebook of AFF 1st edition — as a reference. But I don’t own a copy of that. What I do own is Fighting Fantasy: The Introduction Roleplaying Game, which is a halfway house between single-player FF and AFF, basically adapting Fighting Fantasy rules to multiplayer combat and nothing more. Included in this book was an enjoyable adventure called The Wishing Well. The adventure we have here in AFF 2nd edition is called The Well, and as the missing word demonstrates, it’s nothing more than The Wishing Well with all the insides torn out. Where The Wishing Well is a weird, dangerous affair that clearly demonstrates the gonzo style of Fighting Fantasy, The Well is significantly tamer, and plays more like a Dungeons and Dragons Basic Game boxed set with an 11+ rating and a light salting of Fighting Fantasy weirdness. The map is the same, but every room has been rewritten and all the nasty and unique monsters removed.

I just don’t feel it sets the right tone, and I don’t understand why Graham Bottley decided to strip a perfectly serviceable adventure down to its core and rewrite it. Why didn’t he just write one from scratch? Is he that uncreative?

Judging by the rest of the book, I don’t think that’s the case at all. Unless I interview him one day, I’ll never know his reasoning. Considering my propensity for tracking down game designers and harassing them for explanations, I’ll probably end up doing that.

Back to the book, we move into character creation. A points-buy system has been implemented, which I’m told is for balance, and I agree. There’s an optional random generation system for those who want a bit of old school. Characters have four basic stats:  Skill (or SKILL, as AFF stylises it), which governs all skills, including combat; Stamina, which is your hit points but also your constitution; Luck, which is your saving throw; and Magic, which is new to this edition and is self-explanatory, but I’ll go into it in more detail.

Magic was a necessary addition to bring balance to the game. In Dungeoneer, I’m told, magic-users used SKILL to determine their magical prowess, and this made them incredibly overpowered, because SKILL also governs not only combat prowess, but every single skill check. I’ll get back to magic later.

After generating your stats, you get to pick a race, which gives you certain bonuses. Then you get “special skills”, which in others games would just be called skills, and apply extra bonuses to special applications of a SKILL check. I have to say I actually rather like this approach. In other games, for example DnD 3.5, a skilled character is approximated by giving them lots of skill points to scatter about their various skills; in DnD 4e, the system becomes a little more abstract and applies a bonus to any class-trained skill as well as adding your level to the skill check. AFF, on the other hand, just goes out there and admits what DnD was trying to say all along: a skilled character is skilled at many things.

After the character creation section we get a section on the rules, which all revolve around some core mechanics. If you’re making a save or doing something involving an inanimate object, you have to roll under your relevant attribute on 2d6, modified by difficulty or special skills; one thing I like about this system is that as checks are failed your stats deteriorate, making  saves and other actions harder in future. Otherwise you’ll be making an opposed check, either in combat or diplomatically. Combat is more advanced that FF and I’m told it even has a leg over AFF in terms of versatility. There are a few tactical options that make combat more interesting than just comparing opposed rolls, but for the most part combat is fairly abstract. It’s a very narrativist approach in that the rules are designed to be fast-paced and without the use of a combat grid. I like this a lot. Although I prefer my modern or sci-fi games to be tactical, fantasy games tend to get bogged down when they get too deep into the idea.

Despite being simple, there are sections explaining application of the rules in most conceivable situations, including mounted combat. Although the Brawling special skill mentions that it applies to grappling, I was unable to locate any grapple rules. The core mechanics are simple enough and the game abstract enough that I can make something up, but that’s not really the point.

Moving onto the magic section, the thing that really caught my attention, apart from the fact that it fixes the balance issues of first edition, were declarations that it incorporated the magic system from Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! (sic). Now, this is a half truth. It has all the spells and casting affects the character in the same way by draining Stamina, but the determiner of success is now based on the character’s MAGIC stat.  In the Sorcery! Fighting Fantasy books, you’d be given a list of three spells, one or two of them being fake, and whether you picked the real spell determined whether it was cast. Although I can imagine it being fun giving my sorcerers a list of fake spells and asking them to pick, I can see this as a much better system for a multiplayer game.

The other classes of magic are Wizardry, Cantrips and Priest, which all do as they say on the tin and are well balanced. I have to say, Mr Bottley did a great job on that front. One last note: if you botch a spell by rolling double-sixes, you have to roll on the Oops Table. I have to say, this table reminds me of a tamer version of FATAL.

These Wizardry spells draw from Magic Points, which are derived from your MAGIC stat and Wizardry special skill. I think a more integrated system would have had MAGIC deteriorate with spell use, making subsequent spells and resisting enemy spell effects harder, much like STAMINA does with Sorcery, but it’s not too big a deal, in all honesty. Wizards are already significantly nerfed compared to 1st edition and the writer probably thought this would make them less playable. It also helps make playing a Wizard a different experience from playing a Sorcerer, and that’s probably what Bottley was aiming for. As it stands, Wizards are fun to play, so I’m not sure what I’m complaining about.

Priests, on the other hand, draw powers from their gods and so don’t use Magic Points.

The last few sections include a gazetteer of the setting, a guide to monsters and some optional rules. There’s also some DMing advice and equipment lists, such as magic items and treasures.

The monsters section provides some pretty standard monsters, a guide on making your own and a conversion sheet from every Fighting Fantasy monster, which are available in Out of the Pit, a compilation of, well, every Fighting Fantasy monster. Arion gained a licence to print but not edit Out of the Pit, so this section is necessary to get around that. If you have an old copy of Out of the Pit, there’s no point buying the 2nd edition reprint because it is just that and nothing more.

Finally, the optional rules section has, in addition to what it says on the tin, a guide to creating weapons, armour and spells.

Overall, I’m happy with the system and look forward to playing it. It’s solid, fast-paced and set in a unique world with an atmosphere that you won’t get anywhere else.

Integrity: **** Very little feels tagged-on about this system. The rules are open enough that they don’t have to be exhaustive. It loses a star only because the opposed checks and unopposed checks are respectively roll over and roll under, which makes the mechanics slightly less consistent.

Combat: *** Combat is great for a narrativist style — fast and easy to use — but isn’t exhaustive or highly tactical. No grappling rules, either.

Speed: ***** Five stars. The rules are simple, combat plays quickly and the high level of integration means there’s little flicking through the book on how to resolve a situation.