Retooling COUP for two players

It is the future. And with the Resistance steadily gaining a foothold against the ruling forces, it is a time of much turmoil. Into that turmoil YOU step – head of a wealthy corp-family. If you can use your wits to cast off your rivals’ influence, you can rule it all when the dust finally settles.

Nothing says future like elaborate shoulderpads.
Nothing says future like elaborate shoulderpads.

Not quite war, but regardless – what is it good for?

COUP’s provenance lies in a long line of bluffing and social games: the sort full of hidden information and unstable alliances. What is particulary good about this design is that there is no need for one player to facilitate the game in the way that Mafia or Werewolf or any of their italian-lupine children require: there are no overt teams, which means that the game can play with as few as two. This is rare for a bluffing game, where normally you require more players to enable the bluffs.

What’s up?

Although even a five-player round of this game is quick, playing the game with two players is lightning-fast. Too fast to allow the meat of resource-progression.

A huge part of the game is the ability to lie about your influence and use the traits of characters you might hold. However, in a two-player game, being called on your bluff is tantamount to suicide. That in turn is likely to turn you away from bluffing – which should have been a big reason you’re playing this game.

What nobody knows is I've another assassin beside the lost one.
What nobody knows is I’ve another assassin beside the lost one.

How do I fix it?

My houserule for two- or three-player rounds of COUP is a simple fix. It doesn’t add any intellectual complexity, but it allows for greater tactical (and statistical) depth. Each player begins with three cards of influence. This also promotes the ability to bluff and call people on theirs: by removing the immediate death that can come from a false call, you are less wary of playing in that shadowy realm of mistrust.

Which is why you’re playing COUP over dice games in the first place.

Retooling COUP for two players

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

China Miéville’s “Embassytown”


Usually, I steer clear of anything that becomes too popular. I imagine part of it is a knee-jerk reaction against popularity itself, especially considering how success and mass awareness can skew the perceived value of something – “Oh, you just have to watch/read/inhale this – everybody is doing it.” Quite a few times (usually with novels and films), it’s meant that I’ve dodged bullets – especially in the case of Dan Brown. Rarely is it that a popular product breaks through my barriers, and rarer yet that I am as impressed as I am told I will be.*

China Miéville did. Get through, that is. Then impress me.

I suppose it makes sense – after all, he has thrice won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.**

Embassytown is set on a far away planet – literally at the edge of (their) explored universe – where there are a particularly peculiar set of endemic lifeforms and their alien society, science and appearance. To my mind, the Hosts, or Ariekes, closely remind me of Lovecraft’s Elder Things from At the Mountains of Madness, although appear notably less fungoid. The Hosts have two mouths, which leads to their Language having two voices, but most importantly, they are unable to lie. In order to communicate with them, the human settlers living in Embassytown have specially trained Ambassadors, and the arrival of an outsider Ambassador causes a most notable crisis.

The underlying concept of the Language itself is a very interesting one, and the narrative focus this brings is unlike anything else I’ve read. I expected it to be similar to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in that it deals with semiotics and the concepts of designation and meaning, but because of the science-fiction nature of the novel, Embassytown instead takes the ideas in a very different, and quite profound way.

I’m aware that a lot of what I am saying will make little sense – indeed, this is a theme of the novel. It’s something whose intricacies and twists I am particularly loath to give away, considering how well they are dealt with in the book.

I may not have read China Miéville before, but I definitely will again. Probably The Scar. Not only because it has a big fish on the cover…

* I just wasn’t that impressed with GRRM, especially when I’d requested something drab and gritty like REH’s Conan stories.

** That I can’t recall many other winners from the top of my head suggests just how laxly I follow awards…

China Miéville’s “Embassytown”

Poet Tree

I have a terrible tendency for misspelling the words poetry (see above) or pome, which may or may not be inherited affectations from an English teacher. That being said, I am naturally drawn to creating humorous* misspellings surprisingly often.

What I am not so naturally drawn to creating is the aforementioned tree itself. I do not know why, particularly, considering that I have naturally created prose in sheathfulls. Maybe when most were going through that teenage phase of angsty pomes, I found myself writing gamebooks or variably complex systems for role playing games. Considering the numerical focus of my writings’ development at this time, it is perhaps unsurprising that I (may) have taken to poetry in the manner I seem to be at the moment.

I am currently reading Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, which has stared at me for from a variety of bookshelves, if never my own. I am now borrowing milady’s copy, and am sixty or so pages in – on the fifth exercise.

What I am enjoying most about it is the whittling craft of it, at least under Stephen’s tutelage. It is the shaping of meter** and the warping of words, and less the act of creation. It’s not the preconsidered product but the process.

I can only remember writing one poem off my own back. It’s called Pearl Hoard and came to me whilst I rode beside the North Sea. I don’t know if my future pomes will be similarly horror or else another genre. I like the idea of staying to a genre though – and sci-fi quite appeals.

Hmmm… A cyberpunk poem..?

* In my opinion, if not others’.

** As an archaist, I am in agreement with Fry’s preference.

Poet Tree

“Dreamer’s Cat,” by Stephen Leather (Plus Secret Bonus Review!)

Since reading about ebooks in this month’s Writing Magazine, specifically Leather’s article, I’ve wanted to read Dreamer’s Cat. Partially because the publishing houses hadn’t touched it because it contradicted an establishing brand. Mostly because it sounded cool.

Leif Ableman, who writes and creates commercial Dreams and is one away from completing his contact and retiring, must solve some in-house deaths.

Leather’s one sentence pitch was better, but it isn’t here and I’m not fully awake yet.

I really enjoyed the story – it feels like a mix between Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and the early Michael Marshall Smith books (One of Us at its opening, Only Forward at its conclusion and some central parts). This is good company indeed, and the (e)book stands up well amongst it. I started reading it yesterday, had to sleep, and finished it in the laundrette where my clothes still dry.* The pacing is good and it builds well, and the Dream pieces are really interesting in their narration. I found myself reacting similarly to Leif’s response to the Dreams in my response to Leather’s writing.**

I found myself guessing the possible perpetrator part-way in (around 40% I believe) but that’s most likely because I have read so many similar books. Nonetheless, the denouement was exciting and enjoyable when it came.

The sci-fi elements were subtle and the only jarring exposition came from the lift’s prattling. If you could be persuaded to enjoy sci-fi, give this a go. It’s a simpler concept than Stephenson or Marshall Smith, and as such a great gateway.


This was the first book I’ve read on a Kindle. It’s not mine, but rather my mother’s. I found it odd to hold at first, but that was mostly because of my mother’s leather case, and so I sometimes page-turned by accident. Easily fixable though.

It’s too soon yet to fully judge, but my initial concerns were that the unfamiliar style would serve as a barrier to the story. Never mind that, for at one point I tried to turn the page as if it were a real book!

I like the fact that you can alter the typescript and size to suit. The progress bar is interesting (especially its session marker) but doesn’t quite equal the middle-point-cresting of a traditional book.

The jury is still out for me.

* By the time you read this they will have dried.

** If you’re reading, Steve, nipple?

“Dreamer’s Cat,” by Stephen Leather (Plus Secret Bonus Review!)