That Is Not Dead

Watching Six Wives with Lucy Worsley at the moment (the final of three episodes tonight) has reminded me that I need to focus on getting a playable version of The Dee Sanction out to the wider world next year. Six Wives focusses on the early 16th century, while The Dee Sanction dwells primarily in the latter half. However, the playtest adventures have considered the formative years of both Queen Elizabeth and Doctor John Dee, who were born only 5 years apart and formed a relationship early on.

I make no declaration that the core game will come replete with a detailed and lengthy analysis of the period and personalities. I plan to provide enough information to excite interest and ground the play environment, but I don’t want to force anyone to pass a test before they get started!

I have a rough plan of the releases for 2017 across Just Crunch and that includes The Dee Sanction core rules, currently with a target of mid-year. If all goes to plan, this will be a complete release of core rules, background and an adventure. If all does not go to plan, I will likely opt for a soft release of the rough game system and an adventure – akin to recent releases from much larger publishers – in an effort to provide visibility and garner feedback. However, I have playtesting from a couple of years and copious notes inhand, so I hope that the fuller option will prove achievable.

Here will be the place where I post first. I’ll aim to maintain a trickle of news on progress as 2017 runs on. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the gaming potential of what remains in 2016 – and I thoroughly recommend you watch Six Wives if you have the chance.

The Princess Deviation

20160820_174218Building up to some more playtesting of The Dee Sanction, ready or not. As mentioned before, the game will use the same basic mechanic of needing to roll a 7, but I’ll be testing new approaches to improving the chances of success.

Characters track their physical and mental condition with a Wellbeing grid – but all characters broadly have the same capacity to withstand harm. I may well tinker with the mechanics in their as well, which will be novel as they’re untested as it is.

The adventure is one thing I’m certain of, as I have run it before – but that means I can worry less about the specifics of the story and give more attention to the way the game runs, mechanically.

I also have a degree of confidence in the character generation process, which has worked seamlessly on all occasions I’ve run the game. I haven’t done any expansion of it since the last time I ran it – which should be on my list of things to do.

While The Cthulhu Hack underwent playtesting, that covered a small aspect of the system that varied from the source of The Black Hack. Here, the whole thing comes from somewhere inside my fevered imagination. I hope that in the not too distant future I will get the core of the game down in written form, rather than a pile of written notes and random thoughts inside my head.

Once I’ve got through my game development To Do list, expect draft v1.0 of The Dee Sanction next.

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Weapons of Magick and Devilry

John_Dee's_Seal_of_GodThe Dee Sanction is a game and setting in a steady state of development. It uses a fast-paced, card-based character generation system to get the game up-and-running in moments.

Players take on the roles of outsiders, dabblers, and criminals, given a second chance when recruited as investigators into Queen Elizabeth’s intelligence task force for handling magickal and supernatural threats.

Headed by her long time confident Doctor John Dee, the setting covers both investigations on home soil and the period Dee spent in Europe seeking to secure weapons of mysticism and devilry.

Elizabeth prevails… but for how long faced with the threat of Church, Spain and foul sorcery alike.


I realise this is nothing new, but I needed to remind myself that The Dee Sanction remains very much in progress and worthy of my time and attention.

This time of year hangs heavy with convention-based commitments. The opportunity to sit and tinker with stories, plots and mechanics seem to dry up.

However, I have been pondering the greatest concern for myself around The Dee Sanction – the mechanism for handling conflict and competition. As of yet, I have not settled on a single means of resolving situations in doubt – but, I feel I’m on the cusp.

I plan to run the game at a couple of cons over the next few months and continue to aspire to run an online game or two.

Under Done or Ober Done

20150518_193255We kicked off a new session last night with the intention for a longer game of The Dee Sanction than I have previously run.

Until now most adventures have been one-off sessions or convention slots. The adventures have been run to a 3 – 4-hour timeframe. The one game I have run with my local gaming group took a couple of sessions to complete, but that comes down to only really getting 2.5 hours of gaming time in a single evening.

Last night we kicked off around 20.30 and ran through to around 22.30 – or whenever the last orders bell rang.

The pub environment we play in is not ideal. While we managed to negotiate switching off the speakers in our area of the pub during the match between West Brom and Chelsea, after the match someone cranked them up again. I fail to understand the logic behind the playing of loud music in a small local pub. If we didn’t attend on Mondays like this, they’d have less than a dozen patrons filling a space that could accommodate 100+. Is the music intended to dampen the sense of despondency and loss that haunts their poetic souls?

While I had intended to run Thunder and Steel, the adventure I previously ran at Seven Hills last month, in the end, I came up with a new adventure. The characters arrive in Stettin, the capital of Pomerania, and a member of the Hanseatic League. They have arrived two days later than the ship carrying John Dee and his entourage and discover the good Doctor has already moved on without them. He has left them paid lodgings and a note with a nervous messenger boy called Andreas. They should follow on once they have handled the matter with the child, as he has pressed on along the road following the River Ober toward Moravia.

But what child…?

The only other thing the players had to go on was a flashback. A boy awoke from a nightmare, his face slick with sweat, abed in the dormitory of a school in Chelmsford, circa 1535. The boy had found himself lost and alone in a cloying darkness. He felt pursued by something or someone close on his heels. When he finally felt the hot breath of the beast on his neck, a light flared. A severed hand, with pointed fingers, surrounded by a halo of flame. The middle finger, pale and bloodless; the little finger, blackened as if burnt; the thumb, red like gore. After the boy woke, he didn’t speak and hardly ate for three days until he finally found his senses while studying Euclid in the school library. He had received some incite or experienced some revelation. This was John Dee.

And the flashback didn’t really help throw any light on their situation.

Giving the characters – a messenger, a courtier, a horse-trader, and a painter-stainer – just this to go on, they seemed a little lost. Perhaps I offered too little. I sort of thought that if you find yourself in an unfamiliar town with a message and little else, you’d at least put yourself about in the hope of finding something. Maybe I need to offer something more – I can adjust! Maybe fatigue, the loud music, or my lengthy exposition on the background of the game numbed their senses.

We will not play again for at least two weeks, so I have time to mull on the adventure. I must spend some more time on creating a  condensed background summary for the game, as when improvising I go on too long. In a convention game, I don’t have the luxury of an hour for character generation and discussion on the nature of The Dee Sanction. I did draft something punchy in an earlier post on this blog – and I should likely stick to that in future, or some variant thereof.

Garlands of Deceit

Sir Philip Sidney, by unknown artist, given to the National Portrait Gallery

I’m having an interesting time reading about John Dee and his role as an intelligencer within the court of Queen Elizabeth, referenced in the early sections of The Essential Enochian Grimoire: An Introduction to Angel Magick from Dr. John Dee to the Golden Dawn. While I was mainly looking for more information about Dee’s exploits with Enochian lore, his mysteries don’t start with his pursuits of the supernatural. Even before Francis Walsingham stepped up to the plate as Elizabeth’s spymaster, it seems Dee may have been running secretive errands for the Queen.

For the setting of The Dee Sanction, it’s assumed very much that Dee and Walsingham are partners in their intelligence activities. One deals with the mundane, while the other handles those threats less easily quantified.

Dee provided assistance and advice to the young Elizabeth from long before her coronation; only later did his effort become, by any measure, public knowledge. In appending the Dee Sanction to the 1563 Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts, Elizabeth gave her backing to an official agency in the fight versus dark powers. Whether powers in pursuit of their own ends or in league with the likes of the Holy Cee or the King of Spain, they all come within the remit of Dee and his agents.

In reality, it’s hard to see what actually was happening. Dee did serve Elizabeth in some intelligence-based capacity; however, the available information, scattered across diaries, journals, once hidden papers and other more official sources, provides but a fragmentary view. When Dee took to his travels across Europe with Edward Kelley, actual information on the purpose of said journey remains vague.

In the face of considerable opposition, from Catholics and others, the Queen had every need to seek support, from both political allies and higher powers. The Dee Sanction follows the exploits of the player characters as agents of Dee, whether in 1570s England or deep in Eastern Europe during his travels in the 80s. Whether on the word of Dee, Kelley, Walsingham, or the Queen herself, the characters plumb the shadows for artefacts, hidden lore, and potential allies.

As if to create additional layers of uncertainty, Dee diaries contain several specific references to individuals by the name of Garland. At least four named persons have this same name and the fact they do not appear in any corroborating record suggests Dee used the term as an alias for fellow agents, couriers, or supernatural contacts. Walsingham used a variety of travellers and personalities himself, including writers, poets, diplomats, and merchants. All intelligence was good intelligence in the war against the Catholics – and undoubtedly Francis had a network scattered across Europe, gathering information, carrying messages, and spreading unrest from within.

Whether Garland was a codename isn’t clear – but, it could be. The use of Garland could be a specific code for a type of agent, or a reference Dee alone used to identify his own allies or contacts. In some references, it seems like the Garlands might be brothers – which made me think of the Koenig brothers from Agents of SHIELD TV series. However, all weight of evidence suggests that the name signifies something other than familial kinship. I certainly intend to add a Garland to the available character options for The Dee Sanction.

Delivering a garland to someone clearly involved something more than just rocking up with a pretty arrangement of flowers for someone.

Token-less and Dice-free

cow-tabletopIt’s possible that I’m coming to a turning point with the whole system and approach for The Dee Sanction and the 214 system in general.

Running an adventure without using half the system – and finding it works well – might prove worthy food for thought.

I ran a new adventure – Thunder and Steel – at the Seven Hills gaming event in Sheffield.

The characters only recently made the trip to Europe with Dee and Kelley, and the call of angels in Edward’s ear seemed to be making the trip a long-winded one. Halfway through Moravia, Dee heard rumours of a young girl with prescient dreams who had foreseen the assassination of the Virgin Queen, so sent the characters off to investigate. The trail started in a hamlet nestled in the Little Carpathians and led them on a trail of lies, deceit, bad weather, and unfurnished accommodation.

One way or another, the game system element of this session never kicked in – but, the story felt fairly satisfying.

I had good comments about the atmosphere and background of the tale, and a chat with players afterwards gave positive comment on the snappy three-card character generation process. Interesting also to have players asking about the history itself and explaining the seeds of truth behind the setting and the adventure itself.

I have now played three adventures and many sessions of the system and I’m seeing a leaning away from the fiddly token approach and more toward something that drives and supports the interaction and character.

The character cards offer a view of who the character is and what they’ve got themselves into. Between the three cards, everyone has a clear idea of where their strengths lie and the sort of personality they might have. Perhaps I still could so with a relationship mechanic, but it didn’t feel necessary in this session. I actually choose to reamble my games with a few statements about playing characters as a team, giving each other a chance to speak and contribute, and engaging in the adventure with energy and a splash of derring-do.

I suspect I’ll ruminate on the feedback and my own experience – and then see what I can tweak before I run the adventure again at UK Games Expo at the end of May.

The Dee Sanction at the Cow

gongfermor-playersThis weekend, I ran two games of The Dee Sanction, at Concrete Cow in Milton Keynes. I suspect I will ruminate and post more than once on the outcome from these sessions.

I ran two adventures, both of which I’d run before. ‘The Gongfermor Deception‘ has been run at least four times now, and I don’t think it has proceeded the same way on any of those occasions.

The adventure has a timeline in the background, to which the bad guys aspire to keep. The player characters have the opportunity to interfere with this timeline, if they can – though it depends on what information they can uncover.

I think I could benefit from applying some kind of countdown mechanic to this game so that I have the timeline forefront in my mind and give the players a greater sense as to their progress. I daresay seeing the counters slip away would add to the stress. The actions they take along the way occur within a confined location and getting a grip of distance and time expended wouldn’t be too hard.

I recently read (and posted a review at RPG Geek of) Levi Kornelsen’s Mechanisms For Tabletop Roleplaying. The short supplement offers five interesting mechanics to add elements to an existing game, one of which is a Countdown Stack that might work well in introducing this. I’ll have to give it some consideration.

The other adventure – ‘The Holy Wax Infant of Prague‘ – has more of a sandbox environment within which the events unfold. The characters have less pressure to face, but a wider range of options to consider. In investigating the mystery around the disappearance of an important relic, they have a whole valley of suspect people and locations to consider.

I ran this adventure at Dragonmeet and it ended quite differently to the one this weekend. It ended with a very different culprit to the original – and in writing this up, it will be very much a place with a detailed list of places and possibilities. I allowed the players this weekend to guide their own destiny and their actions gave form to the outcome.

In the end, they found themselves running for their lives from the rending claws and gnashing teeth of evil spirits. Finding solace in a church, they desperately called for the intervention of the angelic host to save them – and pulled off a credible success by slaying the unholy host with heavenly fire.

Both adventures ran well to time. The ‘Infant‘ ran 5 minutes short of the 3-hour slot, while the ‘Deception‘ closed 15-minutes off four hours. In both instances, the players managed to reach a satisfactory conclusion.

I really like the way the second session (Deception) ended, as it would have made the perfect start to a campaign, while definitely offering a single-session conclusion. The characters discovered a place of significance that could have served as the basis for long-term investigation and complications. Here, they walked away as Walsingham’s agents sealed the way with a thick black wax disc, bearing the insignia and motto of The Dee Sanction.

Quite satisfying.

Wither Moravia?

I have been spending a fair amount of time reading, with the intent that some background will fuel creativity in adventures and setting. Here I speak specifically about The Dee Sanction.

At heart, the setting revolves around the travels of Doctor Dee and Edward Kelley in Eastern Europe. The good Doctor spent a lot of time out in the darkest depths of the Habsburg dominions, perhaps seeking support for Queen Elizabeth in the face of increasing Catholic pressures and feints, perhaps not. It seems that Dee and Kelley spent as much time getting in trouble as anything else.

In a time when witchcraft remained a serious issue with serious repercussions for the practitioners, Dee and Kelley trod a very dangerous path. Kelley, frankly, seems to have been a bit of a fruitcake, and Dee altogether too readily fell for his line. Dee, a man in whom Elizabeth had a great deal of trust, himself trusted in the esoteric prevarications and augurous protestations of a medium and sometime necromancer.

In The Dee Sanction, the player characters make up a team of investigators under the tutelage and mentorship of Dee. Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s spymaster, has a keen eye in matters of intelligence and espionage. However, even he cannot claim any great knowledge of matters supernatural. The only way to truly protect Elizabeth necessitates fighting fire with fire.

In spite of the laws of the realm laid down to punish users of magic – like the 1542 Act Against Conjurations and Witchcraft – Walsingham cannot promise true safety without magic of the light. Walsingham advises an adjustment to the legislation, the Dee Sanction, which allows the formation of an undercover unit tasked with seeking out witches, warlocks and demonologists intent on harming the Queen or his dominions.

The setting supports adventures in England, during the 1570s, and thence to Eastern Europe, in the 1580s. Originally, I had my eye on Bohemia and the city of Prague, but this now seems a little too close to the bright lights and riches of nobility. I have come to favour something a little off the ‘beaten track’ and set my Dragonmeet playtest adventure in northern Moravia, which lies to the east of Bohemia.

Now, I’m doing a little preparatory work for Seven Hills in April (just a little) and find my new adventure also set in Moravia, this time in the dark forest and ruined fortresses of eastern Moravia, on the border with Silesia.

In the summer of 1586, a body lies motionless in the grounds of St James’s Park. Servants and courtiers charge across the well tended grounds, the crack of gunfire still echoing in their ears. A crimson outline spreads from the torn and shattered body of Queen Elizabeth, and with the ragged gasp of her final breath the future of England dies with her.

Three years earlier, in the troubled east European border town of Kraznow, a young girl wracked with spasms and tortured by spirits tells of the bloody fall of England’s greatest Queen. Might her words, and the actions of the Dee Sanction, uncover a way to thwart this assassination before it even happens?

I’m personally very keen on this continued stretch in my understanding and appreciation of Europe during this period. I have, in the past, focussed heavily on socio-economic studies of Tudor England, so this goes some way out of my normal territory for reading. I’m always up for a challenge – and, I feel, setting the game in this area allows more leeway for game referees who might themselves have little grasp of the period. Distant corners of Europe, filled with dark forests and trackless mountains, might seem more ‘homely’ to those used to running more conventional fantasy games – and perhaps make the setting more accessible.

The Me in Team

IMG_20141011_131147419Teamwork. What is it good for? That’s a tough one.

In the session of The Dee Sanction I ran at Dragonmeet on Saturday, I found the teamwork dynamic of the group worked quite well. When someone faced a challenge and they rolled outside their success threshold, the team generally jumped in to help. Once they understood their role – as the first call for assistance after a failed roll – they got involved whenever they could.

The opportunity to dump a point of Incriminating Evidence whenever you helped provide some definite incentive. I didn’t have to remind anyone at all about the mechanic. Actually, the only time I mentioned it happened when people got too enthusiastic and tried to get rid of their own when they spent pool points. You can’t impress anyone by simply helping yourself.

Discussing the mechanic after the game, I found two opposing views. That was interesting.

On the one hand, when I explained the reason for the mechanic, a player seemed surprised that it had been needed at all. Why would I need to introduce a mechanic to get people to work together? I explained that in two previous games teamwork had not been that important – indeed, they led to the revelation that changed the Incriminating Evidence mechanic.

Later feedback found another player liked the mechanics that emphasised teamwork, or even roleplaying. He saw it as a way to get around situations where, for some reason, the characters don’t like each other or don’t have a reason to help. That’s definitely the reason I introduced it. I have no issue with players running their characters with personal agenda that challenge or oppose the will or purpose of the group; I do want them to contribute to the greater cause, however, and not solely drive the story toward fragmentation or failure.

The teamwork mechanic means that all players have a reason to get their characters involved, even if – in the end – they have the worst possible intentions for doing so. For the time being, the mixed feedback probably suggests that the mechanic does what it must without negatively impacting the game. In a game where the team works well, the mechanic just runs in the background. Where the cooperation struggles, the mechanic provides a vital impetus to get everyone on the same side – even if they do it for selfish ends.

Playtesting at Dragonmeet

Statue of Infant Jesus of Prague (copy) with g...

Dragonmeet 2014 at the ILEC Conference Centre saw me running another playtest session of 214. I ran The Dee Sanction setting using a new adventure called “The Holy Wax Infant of Prague“. I had five players and a table in the open gaming area (where I had the opportunity to build my own table).

I think it likely I’ll post more than once about this session as I consider it a little more and have the time to ruminate. For my own part, I had a bigger adventure in mind than I could fit into the time available, so it definitely didn’t feel “whole” to me.

Part of that came down to the confusing arrangements of the gaming area for the event – where for the first half hour I – and other GMs – spent quite a while telling people they’d come to the wrong area. I’m not certain we helped much – as we found out later we’d directed them to the wrong other place.

Anyway – as I sold the premise as a game about investigating the unknown, the magickal and the supernatural, I needed more of those. The way the adventure panned out, it turned out to be a far more mundane investigation of wrong-doing. That’s all well if you’re running the game and want a change of pace, but for a convention game I need to run something that showcases what I feel the game’s about.

It didn’t feel like it went badly. While we had a few real world distractions, the players remained engaged and worked together to fathom the mystery of the wax infant, the monks and conflict in a north Moravian valley.

The best feedback I had at the time related to the character cards. I posted about a minor redesign, so those saw play for the first time, including handy new name generator at the top. The feedback suggested these cards provided a rather neat way to quickly create and encapsulate a character from which players could then spin off their own slant.

The talents and expertise listed, by and large, gave a good spread of abilities with little overlap. One player queried whether you could use more than one card to influence a roll – and I said yes. However, the feedback suggested that this would likely be very difficult given the ability spread. On a rare occasion, a real focus of very narrow expertise might allow a player to do this, but most not.

Generally, a good session. Could be cleaner and better suited to showcasing the setting, but the game mechanics seemed to work well. I did rush the end a bit, so I didn’t give the right level of in-game respect for those characters who had redeemed themselves through discarding Incriminating Evidence. I don’t think anyone managed to get down to zero, but at least one player got damned close. On the other hand, another characters acts of atrocity against persons of “the Church” probably garnered them a few fresh black marks against their name and reputation.