Service offered: Interactive Narrative Consultancy

This is something I’ve been doing off & on for a while, but realised it would be worth formalising the concept.

I would like to offer my services consulting on interactive & genre narratives.

“From experience, I can assure you that Sean has both a serious interest and a deep insight into game mechanics.”
Magnus Hedén of Spiritmask RPG

Whether you’ve got an RPG adventure you’re running or a ruleset you’re writing, whether you’re writing a horror novella or a sci-fi play, I could help you eke out the greatest narrative resonance from your story.

Who is this clown?

Well, I’m not actually a clown. But I am a magician.
That means I spend a lot of time thinking about what each audience might expect and how to achieve & manipulate that.
It means I’m used to thinking about objects & the interactions between them in different ways. No-one thinks about cards like a magician does.

I’m a writer: primarily speculative fiction, like cyberpunk or noir. I like building from and subverting genre expectations. I’ve written about the similarities between roleplaying and medieval oral culture.

I’m an interactive narrative & games designer, from building silly games to modules for published systems. I’ve consulted with mindreaders about card games for oracle cards, written specialist GM advice for indie behemoths and spoken on villainy & antagonism at a monthly videogames conference.

What can I do for you?

  • I can solve problems you have with interactive or static narratives.
  • I can help you understand the core conflict within your narrative.
  • I can highlight & clarify the emotions your game mechanics will promote.
  • I can simplify & refine unwieldy systems or stories.

What do I care about?

I like players & characters to have agency – the ability to visualise & enact narrative consequence.

I like brevity & clarity.

I like people to be social & to promote their ability to tell stories.

What is my fee?

I’m taking a leaf out of the book of someone I greatly admire. My standard initial consultation fee is the price of a cup of caffeine. Buy me a coffee & we’ll talk through your needs. If you envisage needing a longer conversation, you can buy me lunch. If you’re in a different country, we can do PayPal & Skype.

From there onwards, we can arrange further services according to your needs. But for many people, that little nugget of insight will be all you’ll need.

Email me today at SEAN at BOOKSEANSMITH dot CO dot UK & we can arrange a coffee.

What are people saying about this?

“Thanks for all of your advice, and your assistance. You’ve been a huge help, and it really helped me re-structure a lot of the rules, explanations, and organization of everything. Your feedback was invaluable.”
David Schirduan on Mythic Mortals

“I think these [ideas] are, no contest, the best feedback I could get from this project. Thanks :D” —Sangjun Park

Service offered: Interactive Narrative Consultancy

d6 encounters, probably

In the National Gallery, a lot of the paintings’ information panels describe their name & “probably 16–“.  It doesn’t take long to stop seeing the date, and seeing a suggestion of the content instead.  These encounters are taken verbatim from the NG information panels

1. Man transcribing lion-skin, probably

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A sage is hard at work transcribing the spell tattooed on the back of a (thankfully, sleeping) lion.  If you come back later, he will have made you a further copy he’d be happy to sell you.  The sage, a slovenly chap named Jerome, doesn’t know what the spell is (it’s Flight).  If the lion bites anyone, the spell is cast on the bitten.

2. Witches trying to slack off in front of their skeletal overseer, probably

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A coven of witches (Nigella, Theresa, Margovia) are working at their incantations under the watchful eye of a skeletal ostrich.  A perceptive viewer might spot that they have hidden the ingredients and vials required to make a strong healing draught.  If the bone-ostrich is distracted, they will hurry to make another batch and slip it to one of the players.

3. Needy naked ladies, probably

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A short distance away from a pile of discarded clothes, just off the path, three naked women are arguing over whose body is best.  One of the players is asked to come to a final judgement.  Unless skillful wordplay allows her to escape, the women will attack the players and try to eat their eyes.  If a judgement is made, the other two women will curse the chooser.

4. A young child empties the ocean, probably

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A young child (Minerve) is working to empty a large body of water into a hole in the ground.  If the players help, the water empties with remarkable speed; Minerve takes advantage of their becoming trapped in the mud and steals an inch of skin from each of them.  If the players investigate what’s in the hole, they find a simulacrum of Minerve himself.

5. The fin-de-siecle paper shortage, probably

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In a large pit just off the road, a group of people are working to treat and bleach some irregularly shaped pieces of material.  They are prepared to sell some finished paper (more of a vellum really) to the players; if a map is drawn on the paper that shows where the owners currently are, their rest will never be interrupted.  (The paper is made from the skin of criminals.)

6. Messianic cockblock, probably

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A woman on the road (Ellipse) is frantically running from person to person, begging them to show her some intimacy.  Her husband believes he is the reincarnation of the messiah and as such has taken a vow of celibacy.  He is accurate in his beliefs.  Ellipse is a very skilled lover.

All images taken from the National Gallery website under a Creative Commons license.

d6 encounters, probably

PIER — a one-dimensional dungeon for INTO THE ODD

If you’ve yet to read the wonderful series of essays at The Alexandrian called Jacquaying the Dungeon, you should line that up.  Its findings aren’t mindblowing, but the clarity of dungeon design logic contained within is not to be missed.

One of the key tenets of that series is that the best dungeons have multiple paths through the space in order to reward exploration.

This is an attempt at inverting that truth.

The Hook

Heading directly into the mists off the lower coasts, there exists a pier.  No-one has gotten to the end of it.

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How does it work?

There are a number of truths about the pier.  For the first time they are encountered, they are true.  For each subsequent time the players venture along the pier, whether or not they are true is a matter of luck — a roll of 1-3 means truth; 4-6 gives the players a respite.

Before venturing onto the pier, players can spend time and effort collecting rumours about the pier.  Make a WIL save — unsuccessful rolls mean players only receive the first truth; success means players receive another random fact.

  • You can’t look back.  Looking back to the shore means you teleport back to the start of the pier.
  • Bottled water turns brackish.  You can’t take short rests.
  • It’s impossible to catch up with the pier train.
  • The train doesn’t take you to the end.
  • The third rail is alive.  (Third Rail: STR19, Armour 2, d4 coil & throw; driven to keep people off the pier; if it causes Critical Damage, it throws the target off the pier.)

The pier is cloaked in mist.  It’s only possible to see 50′ in all directions.

If a player falls into the water, the wash up on the shore a week later with an oddity.

Reaching the end

To reach the end of the pier, each of the following events must have been encountered.  With the exception of #1, each encounter is unique — if you’d encounter the same result twice, instead move up to the next undiscovered entry.

  1. CRAB BATTLE!  d8 crabs scuttle up from the underside of the pier.  They are armed with knives and like to move to the shoreside side of the players.  (Crab: STR8, 8hp, d4 weapon / d8 claw; so long as they are armed, all attacks against them are Impaired; driven to collect small weapons.)
  2. A 20′ section of the pier is missing.  There are still handrails.  The train tracks have vanished.
  3. There are two women at the edge of the pier.  One of them is crabbing, the other sells candy-floss.
  4. At the edge of the mist, floating above the sea is a firm wooden door.
  5. One of the passengers of the train offers the players a ticket stub.  For as long as it is dry, it negates any one of the pier truths.
  6. There are names engraved on the planks of the pier.  For each name that is read, that person appears from the mist and attacks the players.  The second named folk to appear begins to read the names from the planks.  (Named folk: STR12, 0hp, d10 unwieldy ghost field weapons; driven to add names to the roster {by killing people here}.)

The end of the pier

Once all of the entries have been met, it’s possible to get to the end of the pier.  This is expedited by players asking “are we there yet?”

Inside a small amusements arcade, there are a number of shove ha’penny machines.  They are rigged to never pay out.  The machines are very easy to smash open.

There’s a lady here who will sell you a suit of crabmail — name your fee.

There’s also a mystic in a polythene tent.  She invites one player to name a truth about the world.  From this point onwards, it has always been true.

PIER — a one-dimensional dungeon for INTO THE ODD

Exuviae: A Mother’s Interest 

There’s a secret scratching beneath the surface of this town.  A secret that Annie Bishop and “Big Al” Halifax are going to split open for the whole world to see.  A secret powered by my completed EXUVIAE rules, within two and a half hours and with no preparation whatsoever.

Annie Bishop works the taxidermy store at the top of town.  It’s a stuffy job, but she’s got the stomach for the work and the intermittent deliveries of Big Al.  So, Big Al pulls up outside her house one morning, having “hit something” on the freeway again, but there’s something up with this moose.  Intricate patterns have been carved into its skin — though clearly not by any knife or claw that Al’s familiar with.  He hauls the carcass into her house — the symbols are weirdly familiar both to south American ancient cultures, but also European and Asian paganism too — though what’s less than familiar is the fact the moose’s liver has calcified into a lump of granite.

The two are both hot up on their conspiracies — Annie reads a ton of occult books and their authors tend to take too much seriously, and Al is a regular listener of those radio stations where you’re allowed to speak out against the vampire lizards.  This stoneliver is clearly a sign: and probably tied to the fact that the florist opposite Annie’s taxidermy shop was broken into a few days back, but still no cops have turned up to turn the place over.

So the two hit up the florist: Al taking his usual subtlety with a heavy kick to the door.  Inside is dark, and the place stinks of rotting lilies and bloating flesh.  There’s a body on the floor and someone rooting through the pockets, but this guy stands up and holds his hands into the air.

But then, see, the body on the floor, it sits bolt upright.  Al spooks, throws his wrench at the guy with his hands up — guy whose head snaps back with a flailing proboscis.  Annie flees the scene, but is barged to the floor by some heavy who steps into the doorway.

The clearly-not-a-corpse has gotten to its feet by this point and grabbed Al, who stares transfixed at the empty eye sockets of the thing.  By the time he breaks free, a steady stream of mosquitoes pour from the sockets, and Annie’s looking through Al’s truck for something to lever open the nearby hydrant.

Except that she sees someone over the road and is promptly interrupted by her mother, who’s not only clearly friends with the brute who knocked Annie to the floor, but also friends with Al’s ex-wife who also crosses the road.  The brute grabs Annie, Big Al runs into the brute’s mate out the back of the shop, and the pair wake up tied to chairs in a dockside warehouse.

This first act of the game led to the players uncovering almost half as many truths as they needed to win: and after escaping the warehouse and resting up at Al’s contact, they researched an abandoned truck-stop at the edge of town.  Eventually leaving that in flames and with the corpse of a hybrid human insect in the back of a truck, the pair fled along the coast road to Annie’s father, where they eventually learned the truth of her mother’s involvement…

seanspade2

EXUVIAE is currently in the run-up to a Kickstarter later this year.  I’m organising artwork, layout, printing, &c.  However, if you want to get access to the beta reader rules then send me an email at SEANatBOOKSEANSMITHdotCOdotUK.

 

Exuviae: A Mother’s Interest 

Molding a Monster: the Locksmith

The Locksmith is a corrupted humanoid, its pallid flesh splitting with myriad orifices – lipless mouths, nostrils, arseholes – that form and collapse within moments.

The Locksmith can only pass through sealed thresholds. An open door holds it back as much as a wall does.

Game Statistics : Abilities (Athletics 6, Health 5, Scuffling 8); Hit Threshold 4; Stealth Modifier +1, Stability Loss: +1.

Weapon : Skin-on-skin contact heals the target d6 Health points – if target Health is full, it seals their sensory (eyes, ears) or respiratory (nose mouth) orifices. Every strike incurs a five point stability test.

Armour : Wounds caused by piercing and cutting immediately heal over. Fire cleanses it of orifices for a moment but deals no lasting damage. Blunt force trauma will harm the locksmith.

What lies above is probably my favourite horrific creature I’ve ever brought about. It forms the killer in my scenario for the RPG Geek GUMSHOE one-sheet contest.

Originally, the thought came to mind when I spotted a bricked up window in a London side-street.  I remember learning about the window tax as a child, and suddenly was struck with the realisation that these are essentially permanently sealed thresholds.  This train of thought continued, largely from a perspective of justifying weirdnesses.  What if a creature could only pass through sealed thresholds?  What would its lair look like?

The building is labyrinthine and almost all of the doors and windows are sealed tight, be they through sturdy lock or wood and nail. Of course, the Locksmith can pass through these thresholds so long as they are sealed. So long as it is able, the Locksmith will attack and retreat guerilla-style.

From the decision of its movements, I began to think of the way it would harm people — and the very best way I manage that is to go heavily overboard on the same image. So, further sealed thresholds: though in this case, the orifices of the body…

How can I do this myself?

  1. Find something weird in the real world — an interesting staring point
  2. Extrapolate from this — how could something strange exploit this?
  3. Continue from there — if this, then what?

I’d love to hear where you start & what you end up with!  Share your favourite monsters in the comments below.

Molding a Monster: the Locksmith

PATIENT DEVIL— a solitaire variant where you choose your damnations

Recently, I’ve been thinking that Canfield just isn’t a complex enough solitaire game.  I’ve designed patient devil to provide you with more options that you’ll feel that you just don’t want to take.

  1. The aim of the game is to get all of the cards from the pack to the four foundations.  They will vary between (& within) games.  Continuous ranking is allowed.
  2. Take a shuffled pack without jokers and deal seven cards face down into the reserve.  Beside this, deal one card face up to form the first foundation, then four cards face up in separate piles beneath to form the tableau.  Keep the remaining cards aside as your stock.
  3. The foundations are built up by suit in ascending order (A, 2, 3, &c.)  As long as its suit is not yet represented in the foundations, at any point you may move a card to the foundation; from there, the suit is built up as usual.  There is no requirement that the value of any of the new foundations match those already present.  Be careful not to do this too soon — you don’t want to find yourself trapped later on.
  4. The cards from the reserve can be played directly to the foundation or can build down on the tableau.  One of your first goals should be to clear the cards from the reserve.
  5. The tableau is built down in descending order, regardless suit or colour (i.e. you may build any Q on any K, &c.).  Cards may be moved individually or in blocks between the four piles of the tableau.  If you have an empty space, it may be filled with any card.
  6. If you’re otherwise unable to make a move, deal the top three cards of the stock into a single waste pile.  You can play the top card of the waste pile to either the foundations or the tableau.
  7. Once the stock is exhausted, you may turn over the waste pile to produce a new stock.  Do not shuffle the cards.  You may do this as often as you please, though you may find yourself at a dead end regardless!

You’ll find the game slightly easier to win than Canfield (though I’ve yet to calculate the likelihood of winning), though it will regularly feel like you’ve made a choice that’ll upset the game later.  Either way, keep going until you fill the foundations or find that you’re unable to progress!

Let me know in the comments how you find the game — or otherwise what your favourite patience games are!

PATIENT DEVIL— a solitaire variant where you choose your damnations

What was this place, and why was it left?

Typically, most of the dungeons you’ll encounter in OSR games will no longer be being used for their original purpose.  These lists suggest what it was and why it’s no longer used for that.

What was this place?

 

  • Ace – A site of special religious importance
  • King – A site of military importance
  • Queen – A place to cultivate resources
  • Jack – A location to relax
  • Ten – A site to protect and guard value
  • Nine – An academic & research location

 

  • Eight – A space carved out from conflict
  • Seven – A tomb
  • Six – A short-cut or pass
  • Five – An animal den
  • Four – The home of some monstrous intelligence
  • Three – A natural hollow
  • Two – Draw twice & combine

 

Why was it abandoned?

 

  • Ace – Supply routes cut off
  • King – The inhabitants just left
  • Queen – They “dug too deep”
  • Jack – The original purpose was ruined
  • Ten – The original purpose was fulfilled
  • Nine – Invasion by monstrous intelligence

 

  • Eight – Superceded by nearby site
  • Seven – Inhabitants beset by plague
  • Six – Environmental encroachment
  • Five – Realisation of the location’s innate danger
  • Four – Internal disaster
  • Three – Overrun by beasts & vermin
  • Two – Draw twice & combine

 

Draw a couple of cards & see what you get.  Remember, the more often you can find contrast within the idea, the deeper you’ll be able to mine that seam of creativity.

What was this place, and why was it left?

Harbour End — a Gothic sestina

Darkness lengthens as short days end;

A painful chill that floods the veins.

But night is certain creatures’ love —

Monsters that are cloaked in shadow,

Motivations dark and gloomy.

The help of strangers turns suspicious.

 

“Don’t read my interest as suspicious:

I come to you from harbour end.

The water’s turmoil: eddies gloomy,

Rippled patterns like water’s veins.

I met a man who cast no shadow

Wailing for his drownèd love.

 

“She came to him eyes full of love

Yet glossy sheen made him suspicious.

Followed closer than his absent shadow,

He led away from harbour end

Through streets thinner than children’s veins.

Her airless gasps turned his face gloomy.

 

“Thinning clouds lifted skies from gloomy:

A mottled skin dappled the face of his love.

The tears stood proud ‘gainst flattened veins

And rippled neck he thought suspicious.

He watched her breathing draw to end.

She dropped to floor like drying shadow.”

 

Yet stranger why my steps d’you shadow,

Impress my thought with stories gloomy?

What of this woman’s tragic end?

I am but young, I know not of love,

Yet compulsion thus I find suspicious.

And why stare you such at my veins?

 

He laid a gentle palm on my veins

As I noticed that he cast no shadow.

My mind was calmed, felt not suspicious,

Despite the evening dark’ning gloomy.

His eyes locked mine and burned with love.

His teeth, my neck; a pleasant end.

 

He took veins’ contents ‘til their end.

His absent shadow I filled with love.

So listen not suspicious, though my tale be gloomy.

Harbour End — a Gothic sestina