2021 Retrospective

Looking back at the ups and downs of 2021 for Plane Sailing Games

So 2021 is now done. In many important ways better than 2020, but we are still in a world struggling with the pandemic and we are a long way from back to normal.

My second year of Plane Sailing Games Limited as a business entity has had some high points and low points in it, and I think it is good to look back over them.

Love & Barbed Wire

I was able to run a successful kickstarter campaign for my most recent game, Love & Barbed Wire. The concept came to me while travelling back from Metatopia 2019, and I developed and play-tested the game through 2020, for launch in 2021.

It was a bit of a departure in many ways, designed as an epistolary (letter-writing) game. In other words, the players are not role-playing via direct conversation, they are writing letters to each other - expressing the thoughts and feelings of people separated in World War 1 - one a soldier in the trenches, and the other their loved one back home.

The game takes place over five seasons of the war, each with their own background and prompts. In addition, playing cards are used as randomisers to provide emotional content guides for the writers, and a sense of danger — along the way it is possible for the soldier to die in service, or the lover back home to break off the relationship.

It’s out in the wild now, and I’ve submitted it to the 2022 Ennies. Who knows, perhaps something a little off the beaten track will appeal to the judges?

No Conventions 😳

Again this has been a year without conventions to bring games to for playtesting. This makes me sad. I would have liked to attend the UK Games Expo in the summer, but it didn’t seem quite safe enough at the time. Later in the year I was fully intending to attend Dragonmeet, but then a week or so before it arrived the Omicron variant hit the UK and attending a conference with a new, super-transmissible variant seemed like a bad idea.

The house con in Boston that I love attending was obviously not running again this year, and Metatopia was in some ways an even more reduced offering in November — there were panels (more on that in a moment), but there wasn’t organised playtesting which was a shame. I would like to have given Inner Circle more of a try-out there.

A Metatopia Panel 😊

On the plus side, I was able to take part in one of the Metatopia Panels this year, which was a delight. I was with Jon Lemich and Chance Feldstein, talking about “The many meanings of diceless”. We discuss thoughts about the diceless design space including some interesting approaches we have seen. Randomisers as inputs as compared to randomisers as outputs. Adding unpredictability without randomisers.

You can watch the recording of our panel on youtube here:

There is a playlist of all the metatopia panels that is worth a peruse… lots of great talks are on there.

Game Design Work

I’ve been working on a number of games this year which are in various stages of development. Here is a quick run-down of them.

Adventures in the Underbelly

This one has been a long time coming! When I launched my first RPG, Starguild: space opera noir, the most common questions I was asked were about cybernetic enhancements and psionic powers. My response was “Adventures in the Underbelly” which includes rules for both cybernetics and psionic powers, organisations to include in the campaign and six adventures — two sets of three linked adventures for new characters or one-shot use that highlight the new rules and engage PCs with important organisations in exciting and desperate ways.

Final editing has just finished. I now need to finalise the cover and get it printed in early 2022.

Inner Circle

This is a new lightweight black comedy story game about terrible lieutenants serving a despotic leader. Loosely based on the card game Blackjack, the players push their luck while proposing plans to delight their deranged leader. The best plan keeps their credibility intact, those who fail lose credibility and eventually end up for the chop!

I’ve got a few design blogs posted last year about the concept, mechanics and playtest and I plan to launch the game in early 2022.

White Rose Society (working title)

I’m in the early research phase for a game about the White Rose Society, a non-violent, intellectual resistance group in Nazi Germany who ran a leaflet and graffiti campaign calling for active opposition to the Nazi regime.

Deeds not words (working title)

I’m also in the early research phase for a game about the Suffragette movement in the UK. I’m particularly interested in asking the question “How much would you be prepared to sacrifice in order to gain the vote?” I think it is an interesting question to ask in these days when fewer and fewer people seem to be interested in exercising the franchise.

Born to the Purple (working title)

When I wrote a review of Blades in the Dark way back in December 2019, I mentioned that I was thinking about developing a ‘forged in the dark’ version of Starguild — taking what I loved about my setting and concepts and bringing it to a more modern ruleset.

Long story short, I did quite a bit of work in 2020 and early 2021 to produce a Starguild flavoured version of a Forged in the Dark game. It went fairly well, but I think that I tried to do too much in one go. Starguild is, after all, a very generic system. It is specifically designed to enable a very wide range of games to be played.

I’ve come to think that Forged in the Dark games may be best when they have a tighter focus; emulating a specific situation rather than as a generic sci-fi rules engine.

So I’ve parked the giant rewrite of Starguild that I was doing, and I’ve started thinking, planning and designing something much more tightly focussed around diplomats finding their way amidst changing agendas and policies. Making deals and compromises along the way while the galaxy might be collapsing around them (metaphorically). Watch out for design diaries about this in the coming year!

Games I’ve loved in 2021

One of the unexpected side effects of the pandemic is that I’ve had an opportunity to game fairly regularly with some lovely friends over in the USA. Playing a series of one-offs or short campaigns with a superb (and hilarious) group of role-players has really helped me keep my sanity and given me an oasis of fun during the year.

Along the way, we’ve played some games which have really stood out to me.

  • Brindlewood Bay: by Jason Cordova. It is “Murder She Wrote” meets “Cthulhu Mythos”. It is mostly a cosy crime mystery where we play retired elderly ladies solving crimes in a small coastal town in New England. The mechanics beautifully support the game play, and allow us to gradually introduce more details about our characters as part of the process of avoiding harsh consequences we don’t like!
  • The Between: also by Jason Cordova. Set in a harsh and disturbing Victorian London, this is less cosy crime and more “Penny Dreadful” territory. The characters all have mysterious and weird backstories and gather clues while facing danger at every turn. It uses the same mystery mechanism as Brindlewood Bay — the PCs gather clues and theorise, and thus we find out what the solution to the mystery actually is. Then, of course, there is only the dangerous job of resolving each threat. There is a marvellous mechanism called ‘The Unscene” which gives echos of the night in London that adds beautifully to the overall roleplay experience. I wrote a review in late 2021 which is worth a read for more details.
  • Yellow King: by Pelgrane Press/Robin D Laws. I ran a one-shot for each of the four campaign settings. Arguably this wasn’t the way it was intended to be run, and I came across a couple of things which I considered to be weaknesses in the books (the third and fourth books were missing elements of character creation which I think are rather important, and it was a shame to not have them). The conflict system and injury card system was very interesting - basically you set a group objective which could easily be escape, capture, steal an item, rough up… many options other than just fight and kill. Everyone contributes a skill towards a running total and describes their successful (or failed) contribution. In practise I found that the outcome was always obvious within a couple of rolls; it wasn’t swingy enough to have a real sense of drama to it. Worth trying out though, and the connections of people through the years was nice to work in to the game.
  • Jump the Shark: by Ursidice. This is a one-shot that we enjoyed so much that we’ve already played it twice and will most likely come back to it again in the future. You are the characters in a show that had two brilliant seasons with well developed backstories, character arcs and resolutions. Then the show got renewed, and the writers are progressing through more and more hackneyed storylines until the show gets mercifully cancelled. I wrote a review which is worth a read for more information and to whet your appetite.

Find people I’ve mentioned

Cover photo by Alberico Bartoccini on Unsplash